The independence of Florida's judiciary is under legislative assault again. The House may consider legislation today that would give the governor the power to remove a majority of members of the state's 26 Judicial Nominating Commissions, which screen applicants for appointments to the bench. It isn't enough that the commissions already have been transformed from independent panels to glorified patronage committees for the governor. Now this Legislature would make five of nine members on each JNC serve at the governor's pleasure.
This is just another step in dismantling Florida's once respected process for ensuring courts are free from political influence. Before Jeb Bush was governor, Florida had one of the nation's most well-regarded systems for choosing appellate court judges and filling certain trial court vacancies. Candidates interested in a judicial seat would apply to the appropriate JNC that would vet them and send a list of between three and six nominees to the governor who would appoint off the list.
The key to this system was the political independence of the JNCs. Each was made up of three members appointed by the governor, another three appointed by the Florida Bar, and a final three selected by those six members. That reduced the likelihood that partisanship would trump merit.
All that changed under Bush, who won the power to appoint all nine members of every JNC. The only nod to independence was a bone thrown to the Florida Bar. The governor would pick four members of each JNC from a list of nominees selected by the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar. But the governor could reject all the Board's nominees and demand a new list of three names for each seat.
It was this highly politicized system that resulted in Bush appointing Paul Hawkes to the 1st District Court of Appeal. Hawkes got the job more for his political connections than his legal abilities. He recently resigned rather than face an ethics trial on how the court got the funding to build its luxurious new courthouse.
But rather than the Hawkes scandal promoting a return to an independent JNC system, lawmakers would strip away more political neutrality. Under HB 971 and a similar Senate bill, SB 1570, the governor could cut short the terms of any JNC member, except those members from the Florida Bar list. No reason need be given.
The corrosive effects of turning JNCs into patronage jobs where the holder is fully beholden to the governor are serious. It invites political considerations to hold sway over the quality of the judicial candidate, and ultimately allows partisanship to seep further into judicial decision-making.