TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday chose outgoing Broward elections supervisor and well-connected Tallahassee lawyer Pete Antonacci to lead an obscure but powerful group of state judges.
Passing over candidates who emphasized judicial independence for the state’s administrative law judges, DeSantis and the two Republican members of the state Cabinet, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, chose Antonacci with no debate.
“I think it’s really important to have somebody there who’s going to run it in a really effective way,” DeSantis said.
Antonacci will now oversee the state’s 29 administrative law judges at the Division of Administrative Hearings, which handle a wide range of legal disputes involving state agencies, from occupational licenses to seven-figure bid controversies.
It’s the latest act for Antonacci, 72, a longtime capital insider and former lobbyist who has worked in a variety of roles over three decades in government, and whose wife is a lawyer who specializes in cases that go before administrative judges. A former deputy to Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth in the 1990s, former governors have named him to a variety of boards and jobs over the years.
In 2012, he became Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel, where he was at the heart the controversial firing of the head of the state police, Gerry Bailey. The move circumvented the state’s Sunshine Law and sparked intense outrage — Bailey told reporters that he was forced to resign for refusing to pay political favors. The ensuing legal dispute cost Florida taxpayers $700,000.
In September 2015, Scott appointed Antonacci to lead the South Florida Water Management District, one of the most important environmental jobs in the state because of its role in Everglades restoration. Environmentalists objected, claiming Antonacci was unqualified.
In 2018, Scott named him to replace Broward County elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes, whom Scott removed from office following repeated election snafus. Despite fears that he would politicize the office, Antonacci won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for pulling off Broward County’s smoothest election in recent memory this year.
DeSantis on Tuesday praised Antonacci’s elections record.
Antonacci was one of several applicants interviewed to lead the state’s administrative judges, the second such appointment in the last 15 months.
Administrative law judges operate almost entirely behind the scenes, deciding legal disputes revolving around the minutiae of state government. Their work is supposed to be independent and immune from the political games that affect so many other areas of government.
Occasionally they decide the outcomes of crucial issues involving powerful interests, from multi-million dollar contract disputes to the locations of nuclear plants.
For that reason, Florida’s governors and lawmakers have sometimes pressured judges to rule a certain way on cases over the years, multiple former administrative law judges told the Times/Herald.
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When DeSantis took office in 2019, he quickly tried to assert control over those judges. He asked Chief Administrative Law Judge Bob Cohen, who had overseen the office since 2003, to step down.
DeSantis then moved to appoint John MacIver, a conservative lawyer in his office who had only been an attorney for seven years, to replace Cohen. MacIver is a member of the conservative Federalist Society, many of whose members bristle at the idea of an “administrative state” of independent judges.
MacIver’s appointment shocked past administrative law judges, who considered MacIver unqualified. And in a rare rebuke of the governor this year, Republican senators refused to confirm MacIver, requiring the search process to start over.
“I’ve talked to a lot of folks in the process, and there are a couple of areas where there was some concern,” Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, told the Times/Herald about MacIver in February. “I just didn’t have a level of comfort bringing that confirmation forward, because that has my name on it.”
MacIver is now general counsel for Patronis.
Patronis on Tuesday had the same question for each candidate that touched on the tension surrounding the state’s administrative law judges: Whom are they accountable to?
Antonacci, like most of the candidates, said he answered to the governor and the Cabinet.
“The voters speak through you and all the appointments you make,” he said. “I would report and be accountable to each and every one of you.”
Two current administrative law judges who were interviewed Tuesday agreed, but also stressed the need to be independent in the role.
“I also think there’s an equal responsibility to the litigants who come before (the division),” said judge Mary Li Creasy, who has issued a number of high-profile decisions in recent years, including one revoking the license of a nursing home where multiple people died after Hurricane Irma. “That means we do need to be responsible in that everybody who walks in the door feels welcome and feels they are getting a fair shake.”