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JNC quarrels over judge finalists

TALLAHASSEE — In a tense and prickly phone meeting dubbed the "wild west" by one participant, the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission fiercely debated on Wednesday night whether to consider sending more finalists for Gov. Charlie Crist to consider as his third pick to the Supreme Court.

During the unorthodox 90-minute conference call, the nine commission members made the unusual decision, with a close 5-4 vote, to officially "diverge" from rules governing how they meet, just in case they happened to be already breaking those rules by meeting over the phone.

Then they voted 5-4 to break their rules again and consider a new applicant to the Supreme Court, a Third District Court of Appeals judge who hadn't gone through the same interview and vetting process that 18 other applicants went through a week ago.

"You can interview me now," shouted Judge Angel A. Cortiñas, who was listening to the conference call.

The conference call was held to respond to the unusual and perhaps unprecedented request by the governor to "increase the diversity of the pool of nominees."

The high court became less diverse when Justice Raoul Cantero of Miami was the first of four justices to announce resignations earlier this year. The court has seven seats. Two are women and one of them, Peggy Quince, is the court's only ethnic minority.

Crist has made two of his four appointments, but new Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston are not minorities.

Last week, the JNC submitted five finalists to the governor including one woman and one Hispanic judge. Two days later, Crist appointed the Hispanic, Judge Jorge Labarga, to the Fourth District Court of Appeal and asked the JNC to reconvene and send him more names.

The group voted down, by 5-4, a motion to reopen the entire 30-day application process, but then voted to consider Judge Cortiñas, who hadn't previously applied for the opening, in the name of diversity. Cortiñas had applied in the summer for other vacancies on the court.

The group also couldn't agree whether Labarga was officially out of the running now that he was appointed to the District Court of Appeal, and while the members debated that issue, JNC chair Bob Hackleman interrupted saying that he wanted to close the public meeting and go into secret deliberations. Member Kathleen Shanahan seconded the motion and eventually they closed the meeting.

In an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times, Hackleman said the JNC's final list of nominees, "if any," would be available this morning.

JNC quarrels over judge finalists 12/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 4:18pm]
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