Editorial: The Florida Supreme Court should include an African American

Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis should ask the nominating commission for more names before appointing three new justices.
People file into the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 in Tallahassee.
Caption: SCOTT KEELER | TIMES People file into the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 in Tallahassee.
Published December 3 2018

Florida's highest court should reflect the people it serves. That's why the list of nominees to the Florida Supreme Court is stunning for its lack of diversity. For the first time in 36 years, the court will not have an African-American member when three new justices join the court next year unless something changes fast. This is an injustice that reflects poorly on the state, and Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis should correct it.

DeSantis will select the new justices from a list of 11 nominees submitted by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. None of the nine judges and two lawyers on the list the panel submitted last month is black, although six of the original 59 applicants were African-Americans. When Justice Peggy Quince's term ends Jan. 8, it will mark the first time since the late Justice Leander Shaw joined the court in 1983 that the Supreme Court will not have a black justice. DeSantis should ask the commission to reconvene and provide additional choices so he can make appointments that better reflect Florida’s diversity on the highest court in America's third-largest state.

This isn't about quotas. It’s about ensuring fair representation and opportunity across the board. DeSantis will select three justices to fill vacancies left by Quince and Justices Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis, who are retiring because of the mandatory retirement age of 70. With Florida becoming younger and more diverse, the nominating commission had ample opportunity to reflect the changes taking place in a state with more than 3.5 million African-American residents. But none of the six black applicants for the vacancies made the commission's list, drawing sharp criticism especially from black political leaders and civil rights activists.

The governor doesn't have the legal authority to reject the commission's entire list of nominees, but there is a window for DeSantis to ask for additional names. The JNC may give the governor up to six candidates for each vacancy, or 18 nominees in this case. That's seven more than what the commission has offered. While the JNC is not obligated to reconvene or to include more names, a larger list would broaden the talent pool and create an opportunity to make the court more diverse.

This may be DeSantis' problem, but it was created by Gov. Rick Scott. Since he took office in January 2011, Scott has not appointed a single black judge to a state appellate court, according to a brief filed by a Broward County-based association that advocates on behalf of black lawyers in a pending case challenging the appointment process. The governor also appoints all members of the judicial nominating commissions that develop the appointment lists for state appellate and trial courts. The governor's philosophy shapes not only who sits on these nominating panels but who applies for judicial appointments. Attorneys who don't share the governor's political views or social circle have no practical reason to bother.

Scott has appointed black trial judges during his two terms in office, but the appellate courts are different. Those filling vacancies on the Supreme Court and lower appellate courts could serve a generation or longer, ruling on core constitutional issues from privacy and free speech to education and civil rights. Floridians have a right to see in the courts a reflection of themselves.

DeSantis has an opportunity to immediately demonstrate he will be a governor who serves all Floridians, regardless of race or political party. He should ask the nominating commission to add more names to its list of Supreme Court nominees to give him the opportunity to appoint an African American to the court.