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First Hispanic justice resigns from state Supreme Court

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice announced his resignation Friday, giving Gov. Charlie Crist the first of three appointments that will allow him to reshape the Florida Supreme Court.

One of the high court's two most conservative judges, Raoul G. Cantero III, 47, cited personal reasons for stepping down effective Sept. 6, just six years after joining the court.

Cantero has told friends that his family, including his wife, Ani, and three children, are homesick and want to return to Miami. He told the St. Petersburg Times that his 13-year-old daughter recently had a benign tumor removed.

"I wanted to take things step-by-step, and I was dealing with my daughter's surgery," said Cantero, who was born in Spain to Cuban parents and is a graduate of Harvard Law School. "If it were not for this family issue, we would not be moving."

Whom Crist chooses to replace Cantero, a Gov. Jeb Bush appointee, will take on much greater significance. The search comes as the governor is frequently mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Sen. John McCain.

If Crist remains governor, two more justices must retire before his term ends due to constitutional age restrictions: Justice Harry Lee Anstead, 70, and Justice Charles Wells, 69. By comparison, Cantero was one of only two appointments Bush was able to make in eight years of office. The other was Justice Kenneth Bell.

Cantero's comparatively short tenure is unusual but not unprecedented. Former Justice Arthur England resigned in 1981 after six years and former Justice Alan Sundberg resigned in 1982 after seven years.

"I'm surprised and regret he's leaving; he's a fine judge and made a wonderful contribution to the court," said former Justice Stephen Grimes, a partner at Holland & Knight in Tallahassee. "A year or so ago, when they were talking about U.S. Supreme Court justices, his name was mentioned in that vein."

One of two Bush conservatives on the court, Cantero disagreed with the majority of his colleagues in a 2006 decision overturning a law allowing tax dollars to pay for vouchers to private and religious schools.

However, Cantero also could be unpredictably independent. He blasted a Bush privatization measure, in which private attorneys with little-to-no criminal law experience were being hired to replace public defenders for death row inmates. Cantero called their performance some of "the worst lawyering I've seen."

He joined his colleagues in 2005 to unanimously overturn Bush and the Legislature's law reinserting a tube into Terri Schiavo. He called the decision one of his most memorable cases: "It was a proud moment for us that we were able to reach a unanimous decision," Cantero told the Associated Press. "We were able to work through the issues dispassionately

Cantero's resignation sent Florida legal circles atwitter with speculation about who might eventually apply for the job. Among the presumed candidates floated Friday were 1st District Court of Appeal Judges Ricky Polston, Clay Roberts and Phil Padovano. Other possibilities include Crist's former chief legal adviser Chris Kise and former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez who is on the state Board of Education.

Crist is not as conservative as Bush and he can be expected to seek a jurist who is a centrist, like himself, judicial watchers say. But it's not entirely Crist's decision to make.

He must choose from a group of three to six finalists recommended by a nine-member Judicial Nominating Commission. The members include Howard Coker, a former leader of the trial bar; Robert Hackleman, a law partner of Crist's former chief of staff, George LeMieux; and Jason Unger, a longtime Republican activist whose wife Karen ran Jeb Bush's 2002 re-election campaign.

"Gov. Crist is a difficult person to assess. He's been more centrist than I think some people expected him to be, and he's a person who puts a great deal of confidence in those around him," said Barry Richard who has argued frequently before the court, including on behalf of President Bush during the 2000 election.

Cantero was born in Spain, less than two years after his grandfather Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator, was overthrown by Fidel Castro's communist revolution.

He went to Miami's Catholic schools and followed his father into law. As an undergraduate at Florida State University, he majored in English.

Cantero said he and his wife started to discuss his resignation a few weeks ago, and he chose this week because the court had a light oral argument schedule.

Cantero does not have a new job lined up, but he is likely to be inundated with offers from the state's most prestigious firms.

"I'm going to miss my colleagues. I have great respect for them and whenever you have a court, where you have seven members and a lot of contentious cases, you're going to have disagreements," Cantero said. "It's a natural part of the job. You've got to expect that. But I've been very impressed with the way the court conducts itself."

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan and researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report.

>>fast facts

Crist's justices

Raoul Cantero's resignation provides Gov. Charlie Crist an unexpected chance to appoint a third Florida Supreme Court justice. Two other justices are already scheduled to retire from the seven-member bench before Crist's first term ends in January 2011. They are: Harry Lee Anstead, 70, and Charles Wells, 69.

First Hispanic justice resigns from state Supreme Court 04/11/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2008 12:11pm]
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