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  1. Florida Politics

Justice's retirement gives Rick Scott his first chance to alter Florida Supreme Court

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry notified Gov. Rick Scott on Monday that he will retire from the court Dec. 30, as required by law, formally setting in motion the opportunity for the governor to make a coveted pick to the state's highest court.

Perry, who was appointed to the bench in March 2009 by former Gov. Charlie Crist, must retire because of a state law requiring justices to retire on their 70th birthday or the end of their six-year term if they are halfway through the term. Perry turned 70 in January 2015 but his term ends Jan. 3, 2017.

Scott will choose from a list of three to six candidates from the region that encompasses the 5th District Court of Appeal in Central Florida. Under Florida's judicial appointment system, the governor appoints new justices from a list of three to six names submitted to him by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, a nine-member panel controlled by the governor's appointees. Last week, Scott reappointed three members of the commission, including his former general counsel, Jesse Panuccio.

The likely candidates are expected to be Daniel J. Gerber of the Orlando office of the law firm Rumberger, Kirk and Caldwell, and 5th DCA Judges Alan Lawson and Wendy Berger. Gerber also applied when Perry was nominated. Berger was named to the trial court bench by Scott.

Perry's retirement is the first opportunity Scott will have to name a justice to the moderate court that has vexed Republicans during his term on issues ranging from redistricting, abortion and workers compensation to declaring that the Republican-controlled Florida House violated state law when it adjourned early in protest over a budget dispute over the Affordable Care Act.

Perry, the newest member of the court, is the fourth African-American jurist to serve on Florida's high court. He was first appointed to the trial court by former Gov. Jeb Bush when he was named to the state's 18th judicial circuit, which includes Seminole and Brevard counties, in March 2000. He was the first African-American to serve on that bench.

Perry has since been in the court majority, which has frequently been 5-2 in several pivotal cases, including striking down a limit on attorney's fees in workers-compensation insurance and blocking a state requirement that women wait 24 hours before receiving an abortion.

Scott's appointment "will not shift the court as it relates to outcomes," said Jason Gonzalez, the statewide co-chair for the Federalist Society, a conservative libertarian lawyers group that tracks the judicial appointment process. "But, instead of a 5-2 split on the court, we will probably have a 4-3 split with the judicial conservatives still in the minority."

Scott said he will await the recommendation of the nominating commission but wouldn't elaborate on what judicial temperament he will expect in his appointees.

"It's a responsibility I have, and I take very seriously," he told reporters. "What I do is try to find individuals who will uphold the law."

Perry, who can trace his family roots to slavery, told the Times/Herald he does not consider his judicial temperament "traditionalist," but he is also confused by the conservative label.

"What do they want to conserve? If you want to keep things the way they are — 1865 or 1965 — that's not a good place for me," he said. "The good ol' days weren't so good for me."

However, he said that while "there are a lot of laws I don't like" it is not the role of the court to change them. Instead, the court's role is to follow the state and federal constitutions, "regardless of the merits."

Herald/Times reporters Michael Auslen and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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