Gov. Charlie Crist won't choose from all 50 lawyers who aspire to a seat on the Florida Supreme Court. The job of screening them falls to a nominating commission whose members now will demonstrate whether their allegiance is to the justice system or their political benefactors.
Crist already has appointed six of the commission's nine members, and one of them is already speaking bluntly about political considerations. Jason Unger, a lobbyist whose wife ran Gov. Jeb Bush's re-election campaign in 2002, told a reporter: "The governor (Crist) is a conservative, and I assume that he's going to be looking for judges that share his judicial philosophy."
That may be a fair assumption, but Unger's indiscreet remark only underscores the rank politics that are possible when a governor can appoint not only the justices but the people who nominate the justices. Prior to 2001, when Bush persuaded lawmakers to let him corner the judicial market, the nominating commissions were intended as a check on any single governor's attempt to pack the courts. As such, the governor and the Florida Bar each selected three nominating commissioners, with those six choosing three more.
Both Crist and the nominating panel find themselves in an extraordinary position. They seek now to fill two seats, vacated by Bush appointees Raoul Cantero and Kenneth Bell. Next year, two more, Harry Lee Anstead and Charles T. Wells, will depart after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. Those four appointments represent a change in the court majority in one year.
To date, Crist has been more careful than Unger in his statements about the appointments. But before the governor's appointees begin applying any political tests, they might first look at the way Crist has run the offices of attorney general and governor. In both cases, he generally has put competence and experience above political party and ideology.
In his primary campaign two years ago, Crist also stood up to some withering attacks from religious extremist groups that wanted him to promise to use abortion as a litmus test for judicial appointments. He refused such a pledge and went further, writing in part that: "I will appoint judges who respect and adhere to the separation of powers doctrine. I will only appoint the most highly qualified and ethical applicants. Political rhetoric and party affiliation will not factor in appointments."
Those are qualities on which people who value the role of the judiciary should all agree. They also should form the basis for the Supreme Court nominees that ultimately reach the desk of this governor.