Gov. Charlie Crist will soon make his third appointment to the Florida Supreme Court — a choice that could significantly change the ideological balance of the seven-member court. Crist, after choosing two ideological conservatives to succeed like-minded justices, now should ensure the court remains, like Florida, moderate and centrist.
Crist is choosing a replacement for Justice Harry Lee Anstead, 71, one of the court's more moderate members, who faces mandatory retirement in January. It's important that Crist select a centrist judge with impeccable credentials who will hew to the law without injecting a partisan agenda. The best court is one in which you can't predict how the justices will rule based solely on their political leanings.
So far, the four nominees before Crist are promising. The three men and one woman appear highly qualified and largely nonideological. But Crist may have two more options. The Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission originally sent Crist five nominees — all sitting judges. But last week Crist named one of them, Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga of West Palm Beach, to the 4th District Court of Appeal.
Labarga, a native of Cuba, was the only Hispanic nominee. Now Crist has asked the JNC to send him two more nominees — for a total of six — to increase the diversity of the candidate pool. The commission will consider the request in a telephone conference call today. Crist's request is reasonable, particularly since Florida's top court is lacking in diversity. There are two female justices. One is Chief Justice Peggy Quince, who is black and now the court's only minority.
Crist replaced Raoul Cantero, the court's only Hispanic, with Justice Charles Canady, a white appellate judge and former Republican congressman who helped to prosecute President Clinton during his impeachment trial. Crist's other appointment was another white ideological conservative, Justice Ricky Polston, who filled the seat of former Justice Kenneth Bell for a district covering North Florida.
The four nominees now before Crist include three circuit judges — Kevin Emas of Miami, Gill Freeman of Miami, and Waddell Wallace III of Jacksonville — and 5th District Court of Appeal Judge C. Alan Lawson of Daytona Beach. They are considered stellar members of the state judiciary. Hopefully the JNC will forward two other names that are equally impressive and known for their nonpolitical application of the law.
More diversity on the Florida Supreme Court is important. So is selecting a new justice who will maintain the court's centrist balance rather than drive it into a conservative corner that is not reflective of the state or the court's history.