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Florida’s new judges ‘all think the same,’ DeSantis’ top lawyer says

And that’s great, DeSantis’ general counsel said over the weekend.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gives remarks during the banquet program at the Federalist Society Sixth Annual Florida Chapters Conference held at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on Friday, January 31, 2020.  [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gives remarks during the banquet program at the Federalist Society Sixth Annual Florida Chapters Conference held at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on Friday, January 31, 2020. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

ORLANDO — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed 56 judges during his first year in office, more than half of them women and nearly 40 percent of them minorities.

But they’re identical in one respect: They all share the same strict judicial philosophy, said DeSantis’ general counsel, Joe Jacquot.

This commonality was revealed when the judges recently attended the Florida Judicial College program, a course required of all new judges, Jacquot said during a Federalist Society convention in Orlando on Saturday.

“I heard back from several of them who talked about the diversity in the room,” Jacquot recounted. “But they said, ‘We all think the same.’ So that’s great.”

Jacquot‘s comments, before hundreds of lawyers and judges, provided a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the governor chooses his jurists. As general counsel, Jacquot leads that process.

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And for him, that process is simple. He said sharing DeSantis’ Federalist Society views is the “singular test“ for being appointed to the bench.

“The one thing we look for in appointing judges is judicial philosophy,” he said. “Do candidates have the philosophy that the governor has? And do they have the ability to carry that out on the court for which they’re selected?”

That judicial philosophy is the one championed by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and current Justice Clarence Thomas, whom DeSantis on Friday called “the greatest living justice.”

The legal philosophy, known as “textualism“ or “originalism,” requires basing judicial decisions on the text of the law, rather than relying on other court rulings for guidance, for example. The philosophy has been championed by conservatives and the Federalist Society, the group President Donald Trump has drawn from to make his own judicial appointments.

DeSantis was a member of the Federalist Society while at Harvard Law School, and he frequently cites its doctrine of judicial “restraint” to make his case that judges have too much power.

RELATED: DeSantis is reshaping Florida’s courts — with the Federalist Society’s help

Jacquot said that when interviewing applicants, the office asks the person about their process for interpreting state statutes.

Sometimes the person says they would look to court precedent, case law from higher courts or similar cases in different Florida courts before reading the text of the law, Jacquot said.

“Not the best approach for selections,” Jacquot quipped.

Jacquot also revealed one of the “trick questions” he and his office asks applicants.

“One of those is, ‘Pick your current favorite U.S. Supreme Court justice,’” Jacquot said. “And half the candidates say, ‘Scalia.’”

Scalia, whose influence still dominates America’s courts, died four years ago.

Jacquot also joked about how applicants bend over backwards to show their adherence to the philosophy, making it known that they have read Scalia’s influential 2012 book Reading Law.

“One came in and began to quote from Reading Law and cited specific pages. We had one woman who sat her purse down and it was sort of peeking out of her purse,” Jacquot said, with the audience laughing. “But my favorite is this one guy came in with Reading Law and it was dog-eared and had those multi-colored flags sticking out of it, and he sets it down on the table, and then turns it so we can see the spine. That was good.”

RELATED: The only black nominee for Florida’s Supreme Court is technically unqualified

While DeSantis has touted the diversity of his judicial appointments, he faces pressure to nominate a black justice to the Supreme Court. The Judicial Nominating Commission, which is stocked with Federalist Society members, did not include a black candidate in its list of finalists in 2018.

This year, only one of the nine nominees submitted by the commission is black — and she’s technically not qualified to serve until September. DeSantis has to name the two replacements to the court within the next two months.

On Friday, the Florida Legislative Black Caucus wrote to DeSantis urging him to consider the nominee, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Renatha Francis, anyway.

“While she can’t technically serve on the court before September 24, that is a small detail when weighed against her overall qualifications and as a remedy to an all-white, predominantly male court,” the caucus wrote. “Appoint Judge Francis to the Florida Supreme Court.”

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