Gov. Rick Scott is threatening the independence of Florida's judiciary by refusing to consider lawyers who don't share his political views for commissions that screen judicial candidates. He is putting politics before merit, and he is creating a system designed to pack the courts with conservative allies.
Florida's system for choosing appellate court judges and filling certain trial court vacancies starts with the state's 26 Judicial Nominating Commissions, one for each of Florida's 20 circuit courts, five district courts of appeal, and the Florida Supreme Court. Judicial candidates send in applications and the relevant commission vets them, ultimately sending a list of between three and six nominees to the governor, who makes the appointment.
Before Jeb Bush was governor, Florida was widely regarded as a state that smartly used JNCs to shield the judicial nomination process from political influence. Each JNC would be made up of nine members: three appointed by the governor, three appointed by the Florida Bar, and three who would be chosen by the six appointed members. That was too much independence for Bush, who persuaded the Legislature to change the law to let the governor appoint all nine members of each JNC panel. The only remaining element of independence was that for each commission the governor would choose four members from a list recommended by the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar.
So far, Scott has rejected 16 lists of nominees that have come from the Bar, without giving a reason. Many of the seasoned, qualified attorneys that Scott turned away are registered Democrats, have ties to left-leaning groups or are trial lawyers. Scott's use of a political litmus test differs sharply from his predecessors. Charlie Crist and Bush never rejected any Bar nominees.
Scott's manipulations reinforce what a mistake it was in 2001 for Florida to alter the way JNC members are selected. A process that was once designed to find impartial jurists of the highest quality has been turned into an opportunity for the governor to elevate political cronies and hacks to the bench. This is how the politically connected Paul Hawkes ended up being appointed to the 1st District Court of Appeal by Bush. Hawkes resigned rather than face an ethics trial on how the court won state money for a luxurious new courthouse in Tallahassee.
Judicial independence exists only when courts are free to work without political interference. Rather than pursue that goal, Scott is looking to subvert it, and he is harming the state in the process.