The Florida Supreme Court made the right decision last week in ruling that Gov. Rick Scott was within his authority to remove Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala from death penalty cases. The issue is not the morality of capital punishment but the obligation of prosecutors in Florida to follow the legal process for determining in each case whether death is the appropriate penalty to pursue. Capital punishment is archaic and should be abolished, but prosecutors are obligated to follow existing law regardless of their personal beliefs.
Ayala announced in March she would not seek the death penalty in any capital cases, saying death had "no public safety benefit," caused "legal chaos" for the courts and conflicted with the principles of fairness, objectivity and decency. In response, Scott asked Ayala to recuse herself from pending first-degree murder cases. When she refused, Scott transferred two dozen capital cases to another prosecutor, Brad King of Ocala, a death penalty proponent. Ayala sued Scott, arguing he misused his authority. The court, in a 5-2 ruling Thursday, sided with the governor.
This was the right outcome in a case that had as many political dimensions as legal ones. Ayala, a Democrat elected in November, is the first black state attorney in Florida's 172 years of statehood. Scott, a Republican who may run for U.S. Senate next year, has signed death warrants leading to the most executions under any governor since Florida resumed the penalty in the 1970s. But the court majority saw the clear fault lines in the case and correctly hewed to the legal issues.
The court dismissed the notion that this case was a power struggle between Ayala and the governor over prosecutorial discretion. Indeed, Ayala effectively waived her discretion by announcing a blanket policy not to seek death. "Ayala," Justice Alan Lawson wrote in the majority opinion, "has exercised no discretion at all." Prosecutors are bound to review the circumstances of each case and make individual findings of whether death is appropriate as a penalty. The discretion of how to charge rests with prosecutors, but prosecutors cannot ignore the burden of making specific decisions on the facts of each case. A blanket policy, the court wrote, amounts to a "functional veto of state law," and it found Ayala's legal reasoning "at best, a misunderstanding of Florida law."
The justices also found that "the governor did not exceed his authority" in the case. Florida confers "broad authority" on the governor, the court found, and his reassignment of the death penalty cases comported with his duty to ensure the laws of the state were "faithfully executed." Scott did "not direct King to seek the death penalty in any of the reassigned cases," the majority noted — but rather ensured that death remained but an option.
The courts and the Legislature have grappled in recent years over the constitutionality of the death penalty. Ayala's blanket order only handed opponents a defeat by using a broad brush to inflame the emotions behind the issue. Other prosecutors who have called for a fresh look at sentencing, such as Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, are doing their duty by carefully combing capital cases and questioning when to apply the ultimate punishment. A report last week by the Tampa Bay Times showed that Warren had withdrawn death in five of 24 cases he inherited on taking office in January. That is the more appropriate — and legal — approach as long as the death penalty exists.
The high court affirmed that the law matters, and it sent a signal to prosecutors that the ends don't justify the means.