Gov. Charlie Crist's appointment of Palm Beach Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga to the Florida Supreme Court on Friday is particularly significant. It adds a well-qualified, experienced judge to the state's highest court, and it adds diversity to a court that lacks a Hispanic justice. It defuses a fight over a tainted judicial nominating process calculated to favor a top aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush. And it demonstrates the Republican governor's willingness to stand up to pressure from within his own party and independently reach his own conclusions.
Labarga was Crist's best way out of a bad situation, created in part by the governor's own decisions. After Justice Raoul G. Cantero III, the court's only Hispanic justice, resigned last year, Crist passed over Labarga and appointed Charles Canady to fill that opening. Labarga then made the list of candidates to succeed retiring Justice Harry Lee Anstead. But Crist appointed Labarga to an appellate court in December and asked the Judicial Nominating Commission for more names to add diversity to the remaining list of candidates. It was a reasonable request, but the commission did not act in good faith.
The commission convened in a telephone conference call and in a series of public 5-4 votes, waived its own rules and agreed to add at least one more name to the list of finalists. In the majority were members appointed directly by Bush or Crist. In the minority were gubernatorial appointees recommended by the Florida Bar. Given the commission's testy public debate, it is a safe assumption that the secret vote went the same way to add only Frank Jimenez to the list. What began as an effort to be more inclusive became a baldly partisan effort to force Crist to pick Jimenez, the general counsel to the Navy. The former aide to Bush and Sen. Mel Martinez was the least qualified and most ideological nominee on the list, and he has a history of being hostile to the notion of an independent judiciary and to public records.
Crist was under considerable public and private pressure to appoint Jimenez. A group of lawyers, including a number of influential lobbyists and Bush supporters, defended the flawed JNC process. Cantero, a Bush appointee, attempted to turn the debate into one about ethnicity in a column in the St. Petersburg Times by questioning why this editorial page once raised issues about his background and now about Jimenez's record. In fact, the Times' has consistently been a strong advocate for diversity in the judiciary in general and on the Supreme Court in particular. The issue here has been the politicizing of the nominating process to favor one well-connected finalist under the guise of broader diversity.
Crist made the right decision by passing over Jimenez and appointing Labarga to the Supreme Court. Now he should make it a priority to work with the Legislature to reform the judicial nominating process.