TALLAHASSEE — After nearly four years, Gov. Rick Scott has appointed fewer African-Americans to Florida judgeships than either Charlie Crist or Jeb Bush did in the same period of time.
Scott has appointed nine black attorneys to judgeships in nearly four years, according to data from his office. They include reappointments of three judges who hear job-related injury claims and four county judges who decide small claims and traffic cases.
Only twice has Scott appointed black judges to the more prestigious trial court or circuit court, and both are in Miami-Dade County: Eric Hendon and Rodney Smith in 2012. Thirteen of Scott's 14 choices for district courts of appeal judges are white and the other is Hispanic.
"What I'm focused on is making sure that the people I appoint understand that there are three branches of government and that they don't get to legislate," Scott said in an interview with the Times/Herald. "They don't get to pass laws, just like I don't get to pass laws."
As African-Americans now make up a slightly smaller percentage of the pool of judges than before Scott took office, he faces criticism from the Florida Bar and the Legislature's black caucus.
"He has no interest in diversity," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, a caucus member and incoming Senate Democratic leader. "He wants to stack the courts with people who think like him. It's that corporate mentality that he brought to the governor's office."
Statewide, 84 percent of judges are white, 9 percent are Hispanic and 6.6 percent are black, according to data from the court system. When Scott took office in 2011, the percentage of black judges was 6.9 percent.
Scott's office emphasizes that the level of racial diversity on the bench reflects the makeup of bar membership in a state where 3 percent of lawyers are black.
"The governor appoints candidates to judicial office who will serve with humility and respect the rule of law," spokesman John Tupps said.
During the same 44-month time frame as Scott, former Gov. Crist appointed 12 African-American judges, including James Perry to the Florida Supreme Court when Crist was a Republican. As Scott's Democratic opponent, Crist is relying on overwhelming support from black voters in the Nov. 4 election.
Former Gov. Bush had appointed 22 black judges up to this point in his tenure, including Peggy Quince, the first black female justice on the Supreme Court, a choice he approved along with Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, days before Chiles died in 1998.
In direct comparison, Scott has appointed black attorneys to judgeships 5.7 percent of the time. Crist's overall record was 8.3 percent and Bush's was 10 percent.
Scott has appointed Hispanics to judgeships in 10 percent of all cases and women 35 percent of the time.
If he wins a second term, Scott may appoint replacements for four of seven Supreme Court justices who must retire in the next few years, including Perry and Quince, the court's only black members.
Battling the Bar
Scott also has put his personal stamp on the 26 judicial nominating commissions, or JNCs, that screen candidates for judgeships and recommend finalists to him.
Working with his general counsel, Pete Antonacci, Scott has rejected the lists of lawyers submitted by the Florida Bar 19 times without saying why. He's not required to give a reason.
"I've accepted some, and others I haven't," Scott said.
Before 2001, the Bar had the power to directly appoint three members to every judicial nominating commission. Its role in judicial selection was severely weakened by changes Bush supported that give the governor power to pick all nine members. But neither Bush nor Crist ever rejected a list of Bar nominees to the nominating commissions.
Each nominating commission consists of nine members, and Scott must pick four of the nine from Bar-submitted lists, which often include Democrats and Republicans as well as attorneys who practice personal injury law or represent plaintiffs and who are more likely to be Democrats.
Law firms lobby the governor's office aggressively when their members or allies seek membership on judicial nominating commissions.
Bar statistics show that minority participation on nominating commissions has declined during Scott's term as well.
Amid growing friction between Scott and the legal community, the Bar last year formed a task force on diversity that urged Scott to hire a diversity officer to reverse the decline in appointments of black judges. Scott has not done so.
The task force report included a survey of 1,555 lawyers, 77 percent of whom said partisan politics were more important than merit in winning appointments to nominating commissions. JNC members who were appointed by Scott disagreed with that view by about the same margin.
An all-white circuit
During an 18-month period between Scott's appointments of two black judges in November 2012 and April of this year, every one of 65 judges he appointed was white or Hispanic, including 39 white men.
Hubert Grimes, the first black circuit judge ever to serve a four-county region surrounding Daytona Beach, retired this year, and the slate of six finalists included two black women. Scott chose a white lawyer, Dawn Nichols, as some community leaders lobbied for Regina Nunnally, an assistant public defender who is black.
"Judge Grimes served with distinction, and I just thought it would have been a smart thing from a governing perspective," said Bill Partington, a Republican city commissioner from Ormond Beach.
Scott's choice of Nichols means all 27 circuit judges in the 7th Judicial Circuit are white — as it was before Bush appointed Grimes in 1999.
"I think it speaks for itself," Grimes said of Scott's record. "He has not seen that as a priority."
Eleven percent of Volusia County's population is black. It's slightly higher in Flagler and Putnam, and lower in St. Johns, the fourth county in the circuit. Volusia has three black county court judges, one of whom lost an election bid last month.
Gregory Barnhart, a West Palm Beach lawyer who served on judicial nominating commissions under three governors, said Scott is trying to make the courts reflect his conservative Republican philosophy rather than Florida's diversity.
"When you rig it like Rick Scott is doing, then the system fails," Barnhart said. "He only wants his own people. He's installing his own partisanship and his own ideology."
On three occasions, Scott appointed JNC members who work for the law firm of GrayRobinson, where Antonacci worked before becoming Scott's top lawyer in 2012. Antonacci declined to be interviewed, and spokesman Tupps repeated Scott's preference for appointees with "humility and a respect for the rule of law."
Florida Bar president Gregory Coleman said more diversity on the bench fosters public faith in the judicial system.
"The fact that we have people walking into our courthouses who are not all white males means we really need to have judges that reflect the makeup of society," Coleman said. "It builds credibility and trust, and those are important elements in our branch of government."
Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Caitlin Johnston and Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.