TALLAHASSEE — For the second time in six weeks, a Florida Supreme Court justice resigned Friday, giving Gov. Charlie Crist unprecedented power to reshape the court over the next year.
Justice Kenneth Bell, 52, said he would step down Oct. 1 to spend more time with his wife and four children. His family remained in Pensacola after Bell joined the seven-member bench in early 2003.
"Indeed, I wish I could continue to serve," Bell said. "However, similar to the reasons recently expressed by Justice (Raoul) Cantero in his resignation, my family responsibilities require that I return full time to Pensacola."
Bell and Cantero, who announced his departure April 11, were former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's only appointees to the high court.
Also slated to leave the court are two appointees of former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, Justices Harry Lee Anstead and Charles T. Wells. They must leave in early 2009 because of the mandatory retirement age of 70.
The four vacancies will give Crist, the centrist Republican governor with a self-described "live and let live" philosophy, a unique ability to reshape the philosophical makeup of the state's highest court.
The vacancies are expected to prompt a scramble among the state's lawyers and judges. And Crist can be expected to consider the bench's racial and gender makeup. The three remaining justices will be a black woman and two whites, a man and a woman. Cantero was the court's first Hispanic member.
As Florida's final judicial forum, the Supreme Court reviews death penalty cases, decides the constitutionality of state laws, disciplines lawyers and judges, and determines the legality of ballot initiatives before they go to voters.
The court in recent years has struck down Florida's school voucher program, overturned a law ordering Terri Schiavo's feeding tube to be re-connected, and ruled that Bush had no power to veto part of a legislative budget line item.
The four departures are the most turnover on the court since 1975, when three justices resigned in the wake of a series of scandals.
"It's extraordinary, certainly in Florida and even nationally," said Bruce Rogow, a Nova Southeastern University constitutional law professor.
Rogow said he did not foresee a philosophical shift, noting that the court has not been marked by sharp political differences.
"I don't see this as being an apocalyptic change in the law of Florida," Rogow said. "It certainly will bring new faces, new ideas to the court, and that will be healthy."
Raquel "Rocky" Rodriquez, a Miami lawyer who served as Bush's general counsel, called the two resignations a loss to the court and to Florida.
"I know for a fact that both of them love their jobs, and if it weren't for geography, they would both still be on the court," she said.
In response to Cantero's resignation, House Speaker Marco Rubio inserted a provision in a budget bill this month that would allow justices to travel from Tallahassee to their homes 36 weeks a year at taxpayer expense. Justices earn $161,200 a year.
In a tribute to Bell, Crist said: "He will be remembered for his firm belief in the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances on which our nation was founded." Bell is the first judge from west of Tallahassee since 1917.
Bush appointed Bell on Dec. 30, 2002, shortly after he easily won re-election to a second term and five months after naming Cantero. The two men were viewed as Bush's attempt to nudge the court in a more conservative direction. Bell replaced Leander Shaw, the court's most liberal member, and expressed his belief in "judicial restraint" when he was chosen.
Bell and Cantero were the lone dissenters in one of the court's most significant rulings of this decade that revealed a divergence of philosophies. That 5-2 decision in 2006 struck down the statewide school voucher program that was a priority of Bush's but had been challenged by the Florida Education Association, a teachers' union and others.
This summer, Justice Peggy A. Quince, the first African-American woman to serve on the court, will ascend to the position of chief justice for a two-year term.
Quince was appointed by Chiles. The other two remaining justices, R. Fred Lewis and Barbara J. Pariente, also were appointed by Chiles, a Democrat.
Florida voters in 1976 created a merit retention system for all appellate judges, including Supreme Court justices, who face the voters every six years.
When a vacancy occurs, the governor chooses from among a list of three to six finalists recommended by a nine-member Judicial Nominating Commission. Members of the commission 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 Bush's 2002 re-election campaign.
Times researchers John Martin and Will Short Gorham contributed to this report.