Gov. Ron DeSantis has named Carlos Muñiz, a top lawyer for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and former counsel under Gov. Jeb Bush, as his third pick to the Florida Supreme Court.
In an announcement at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday morning, DeSantis praised Muñiz’s “intellectual firepower” and noted that the conservative 49-year-old lawyer is the first appointee in decades without judicial experience.
“When you ask them about Carlos, the praise is effusive,” DeSantis said. “Gov. Bush said he’s one of — I think he may have even said the smartest — guy who ever worked for him in eight years.”
Muñiz is the governor’s third appointment to the state’s high court since taking office two weeks ago. Earlier, DeSantis appointed Miami appellate judges Barbara Lagoa and Andrew Luck. No confirmation is needed.
Over a 25-year legal career, Muñiz has worked for some of the top Republicans and law firms in Florida.
He was involved in Attorney General Pam Bondi’s decision not to pursue complaints again Trump University, the president’s real estate training company than many students believed to be a fraud. And he defended Florida State University against a Title IX lawsuit filed over the way the university handled a student’s rape accusation against star quarterback Jameis Winston.
Speaking next to his wife and children Tuesday, Muñiz said he was proud of his experience working for “strong, brave, principled leaders.” And he said he always wanted to work for teams that “sought to promote the common good through restrained government.”
But he said he would set aside his “policy preferences” while on the bench.
“The role of a judge is to preserve the constitution, not to add to it or detract from it,” Muñiz said. “I believe strongly in judicial independence, but judges have to earn that independence through their fidelity to the constitution.”
Muñiz moved to Florida in 2001, just four years after graduating from Yale Law School, to join Gov. Jeb Bush’s office as a deputy general counsel. From there, he worked as the top lawyer for the Florida Department of Financial Services and as chief of staff to then-Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.
He joined Bondi’s office in 2011 as her chief deputy and chief of staff, where he was involved in her decision not to sue Trump University.
Records showed he was copied on emails about student complaints, and he helped draft a 2013 fact sheet to reporters, according to the Associated Press.
During his federal confirmation hearing to join the Department of Education in 2017, he told senators that he was only aware of one complaint against the company, and that he didn’t learn of it until a reporter called the office.
Trump University shut down in 2010, the year before Bondi took office, but the attorney general’s office had received more than 20 complaints from consumers claiming they’d been swindled.
While her office was weighing the decision, Bondi solicited a $25,000 campaign donation from Trump’s charity. Trump settled a class-action lawsuit for $25 million in 2017.
DeSantis, who won office last year with the strong support of the president, said he didn’t ask Muñiz about the office’s handling of the case.
“Our whole national politics is consumed with this effort to just undo the election and attack Trump any way you can,” DeSantis said. “And so I’m numb to it at this point. So no, I didn’t ask him about it.”
In private practice, Muñiz defended companies against government investigations and civil rights cases, according to the governor’s office.
Last year, Trump nominated Muñiz to be DeVos’ top lawyer at the Department of Education, overseeing legal actions in courts across the country.
DeSantis’ selection earned praise from conservatives and condemnation from some Democrats.
“From his appointment, it’s clear that Ron DeSantis has no respect for the rule of the law, and is seeking to stack the courts with his political allies,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo.
Colorado attorney John Clune, who represented the accuser in the FSU case, said Tuesday that he found Muñiz to be a “very ethical, very constructive” attorney.
“Our experience with him was that he was kind of a problem-solver,” Clune said. “He didn’t ever try to belittle our side of the case. He really tried to understand where we were coming from.”
He said from his experience, Muñiz’s skills would lend itself well to the court.
“He seems like he has the right temperament for the position,” Clune added.
DeSantis said Muñiz’s experience working for the governor, the Legislature and the government was a useful perspective to bring to the state’s highest court.
“One of the critiques I’ve had of the court is that they’ve not understood their proper jurisdiction, and they’ve expanded it beyond where they should,” he said.
For the first time in decades, Florida’s Supreme Court is without a black justice, after the state Judicial Nominating Commission didn’t include one on its short list, which the governor is required to choose from.
But DeSantis noted that he has appointed two Hispanic justices to the bench. Muñiz is Nicaraguan-American.
“Just within two or three weeks of being in office, I’ve already put more Hispanics on the Supreme Court than any governor in history,” he said.
Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.