If Gov. Charlie Crist appoints Frank Jimenez to the Florida Supreme Court, he will be selecting the least qualified and most ideological nominee available. Jimenez is a Cuban-American and would add diversity to a court that now lacks a Hispanic justice. But in this case, diversity would be a pretext for stacking the Supreme Court with political conservatives and abandoning its centrist history.
A Jimenez appointment would make a mockery of the state's judicial nomination process, which was initially designed to ensure meritorious and nonpolitical picks for the state's appellate courts. While it was reasonable for Crist to ask the Judicial Nominating Commission for more names to add diversity to the list of candidates, the commission's handling of the request in a contentious Wednesday night telephone conference is legally suspect and politically tainted.
In a series of 5-4 votes, the commission publicly agreed to waive its own rules and add at least one more name to the list of finalists. It is no coincidence that the majority were appointees made directly by Crist or former Gov. Jeb Bush, and that the minority were gubernatorial appointees recommended by the Florida Bar. One guess how the secret ballot to add Jimenez went. This was not a broad search for diversity but a heavy-handed move to add one specific name to the list.
Jimenez is a Bush acolyte whose career has been advanced through one political appointment after another. As the governor's assistant general counsel, he sent an e-mail in which he plotted with Bush to recruit "ideologically compatible" applicants for judgeships by creating shadow regional panels to encourage certain judicial candidacies. That alone illustrates the contempt he has for an independent judiciary.
Jimenez also has a history of some hostility toward public records. In early 2001, the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation requested electronic copies of Gov. Jeb Bush's e-mail to members of the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission during the 2000 presidential recount. Jimenez, as a top aide to Bush, called foundation president Barbara Petersen and demanded to know why the foundation wanted the records — a clear violation of case law that says no reason has to be given. It was a heavy-handed attempt at intimidation, and the Bush administration complied only after the foundation made clear it would go to court. Petersen said an investigator for the nominating commission questioned her about the incident this week, but Jimenez's inappropriate behavior apparently made no difference to the majority of the JNC.
Crist already has replaced two conservative justices on the Supreme Court with conservatives with political ties. Justice Charles Canady was a Republican congressman who helped run President Clinton's impeachment trial. As a lower court judge, Justice Ricky Polston was the lone dissenter in a three-judge panel ruling against Bush's vouchers. But their legal credentials are stronger than Jimenez's.
Beyond the political machinations, Jimenez's qualifications don't match his competition's. The five nominees the JNC originally sent to Crist were all exceptionally qualified judicial candidates. All were state court judges with long, impressive careers in the courtroom who were known for their intelligence, hard work and nonideological judgments.
Jimenez's legal work has tended to be primarily advisory and supervisory. Now general counsel to the Navy, he has spent much of his career in the service of the executive branch. The judiciary is an independent check on the other branches of government, and there is no indication Jimenez is anything other than a last-minute partisan finalist with considerable political clout.