TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday tossed out challenges to the eligibility of six candidates for seats on revamped state appeals courts, setting the stage for Gov. Ron DeSantis to make appointments.
Justices rejected arguments that the challenged candidates are ineligible because they live outside the jurisdictions of the 5th District Court of Appeal and the new 6th District Court of Appeal.
The ruling said a residency requirement would apply at the time judges are appointed — not when candidates are put forward by judicial nominating commissions. DeSantis makes appointments from lists of candidates nominated by the commissions.
“Given that the (Florida) Constitution provides for a 60-day period between a commission’s certification of nominations and the gubernatorial appointment deadline, and in the absence of clear textual direction to the contrary, we cannot say that the Constitution imposes an ‘eligible at the time of nomination’ requirement,” Chief Justice Carlos Muniz wrote in a 13-page opinion. “Rather, we believe that the Constitution leaves to the commissions’ discretion whether to nominate only candidates who are residents at the time of nomination.”
Justices Ricky Polston and Renatha Francis and Associate Justice Ivan Fernandez fully joined Muniz’s opinion, while Justice Jorge Labarga concurred with part of it and dissented from part of it. In his partial dissent, Labarga wrote that the Supreme Court should have considered an issue about whether the 5th District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission and the 6th District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission violated their own rules.
Justices Charles Canady, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans were recused from the case. Canady and Couriel served as references for three appeals court candidates, while Grosshans’ husband, Josh, is a member of the 6th District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission.
Fernandez, chief judge in South Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, was temporarily appointed so the Supreme Court would have enough justices to decide the case. The seven-member Supreme Court’s rules require five justices to create quorums.
The case was rooted in the Legislature’s approval this year of a plan (HB 7027) that added the 6th District Court of Appeal and revised the jurisdictions of the 1st District Court of Appeal, the 2nd District Court of Appeal and the 5th District Court of Appeal. The changes are scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, with DeSantis appointing judges to fill vacant positions.
After the 5th District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission and the 6th District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission sent lists of candidates to DeSantis, state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, and Volusia County resident Whitney Boan filed the legal challenges.
Thompson contended that four of 18 candidates, including state Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, were ineligible for seats on the 6th District Court of Appeal because they did not live within its jurisdiction. Boan contended that two of 15 candidates, including state Gaming Control Commission Chairman John MacIver, were not eligible for seats on the 5th District Court of Appeal.
“Permitting individuals who reside outside the territorial jurisdiction of a district court of appeal to be nominated for positions on that court would violate the Florida Constitution and contradict this (Supreme) Court’s stated goal of achieving proportional geographic representation,” attorneys for Boan wrote last month in the 5th District Court of Appeal case.
But the judicial nominating commissions and Attorney General Ashley Moody disputed that the candidates were required to live within the jurisdictions at the time they were nominated. The commissions said in court filings that the candidates, if selected, could meet the residency requirements at the time the appointments take effect.
“The JNC (the 6th District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission) asked each of the nominees if they would become residents of the Sixth DCA jurisdictional territory, and each of the nominees confirmed they would,” one of the filings said. “The JNC thus fully complied with its obligations and this (Supreme) Court’s direction in determining that the nominees were willing and able to satisfy the residential requirement.”
The 6th District Court of Appeal, which will be based in Polk County, will hear cases from the 9th, 10th and 20th judicial circuits — an area that includes Orange, Osceola, Hardee, Highlands, Polk, Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties.
The redrawn 5th District Court of Appeal, which will be based in Volusia County, will hear cases from the 4th, 5th, 7th and 18th judicial circuits — an area that includes Duval, Nassau, Clay, Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Sumter, St. Johns, Putnam, Flagler, Volusia, Brevard and Seminole counties.
In addition to challenging the eligibility of Beltran, who lives in Hillsborough County, Thompson targeted the 6th District Court of Appeal candidacies of Leon County Circuit Judge Stephen Everett, Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Jared Smith and Danielle Brewer, a judge in the 12th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.
In the 5th District Court of Appeal case, Boan challenged the eligibility of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Paige Kilbane and MacIver, a Leon County resident.
By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida