Florida Senate committee refuses to confirm DeSantis appointee, citing ‘concern’

He was called “unqualified” by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, former judges and the Senate minority leader.
John MacIver, Gov. Ron DeSantis' pick to be the chief judge of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings.
John MacIver, Gov. Ron DeSantis' pick to be the chief judge of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings. [ [The Florida Channel] ]
Published Feb. 18, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial nominee to lead an obscure but powerful group of state judges won’t be confirmed by the Senate this session, a key Republican senator said Monday.

Citing unspecified concerns, Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, said his committee won’t take up the confirmation of John MacIver, a 7-year attorney with virtually no experience in the courtroom.

“I’ve talked to a lot of folks in the process, and there are a couple of areas where there was some concern,” Hooper said. “I just didn’t have a level of comfort bringing that confirmation forward, because that has my name on it.”

MacIver was DeSantis’ choice to be the chief judge of the Division of Administrative Hearings, whose 29 judges rule on state government issues ranging from workers’ compensation disputes to the locations of nuclear power plants. He’s been in the job since fall, when he was appointed by DeSantis and the Cabinet.

To keep the job, however, he needed to be confirmed by two Senate committees, including Hooper’s Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee. The committee met for the last time on Monday without taking up MacIver’s appointment.

Related: DeSantis wants this Florida lawyer for a powerful new job. Former judges say he’s unqualified.

“I think it’s now between he and the governor’s office how best they want to go forward,” Hooper said.

If DeSantis doesn’t reappoint him, MacIver will be out of the job. DeSantis’ spokeswoman Helen Ferré declined to say what the governor will do.

“The governor will review the situation,” she said in a statement.

While obscure, the division is hugely influential in state government. The administrative law judges are supposed to be neutral arbiters on a variety of state issues, and they frequently rule against a governor’s agencies or priorities.

For that reason, multiple former judges told the Times/Herald that governors and lawmakers from both parties had pressured them or their colleagues on particular cases over the decades.

The position came open last year when DeSantis’ general counsel pushed out the division’s previous chief judge, who had decades of legal experience when he was appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003. DeSantis then chose MacIver from the only two applicants for the job.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville and former division judges said MacIver did not have enough experience to do the job. MacIver has less experience than the judges he’s overseeing.

Related: Gov. DeSantis should reconsider 'unqualified’ judge nominee, Florida senator says

“Neither of these candidates rise to the level of what we consider necessary for the chief administrative law judge,” Fried said last year.

But what MacIver lacked in experience, he made up for in connections. Most of his time as a lawyer has been spent working for former Gov. Rick Scott or DeSantis, and he’s a chapter president of the Federalist Society, whose conservative judicial philosophy is shared by DeSantis.

During his interview with DeSantis and the Cabinet, MacIver raised eyebrows by repeating Federalist Society talking points and mentioning stripping away powers the administrative judges have held for decades.

MacIver was also one of two lawyers representing the governor in the removal of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel following the 2018 Parkland shooting. Although it was by far MacIver’s most high-profile work, it was blasted by a Republican lawyer hired by the Senate to evaluate Israel’s removal.