Gov. Ron DeSantis has a second chance to do the right thing and ensure the Florida Supreme Court looks more like Florida. The governor left the court without a black justice for the first time in 36 years when he appointed three new justices in January. Now two of those three new justices are leaving the court for the federal bench, and DeSantis has an opportunity to correct his serious oversight and appoint a black justice.
This is a remarkable period of turnover for the state’s highest court, which DeSantis already has transformed into a more conservative institution. Three of the seven justices -- R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, the court’s only black justice -- retired in January because they reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. After a legal battle over whether the departing governor or the incoming governor had the authority to appoint the three new justices, that duty went to DeSantis. By then, the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission was working to winnow a list of 59 applicants, six of whom were black, to a final selection of nominees. But curiously, none of the 11 on the final list sent to the governor were black. DeSantis should have asked the commission to go back to the drawing board, but he did not.
Before they could get their seats warm in Tallahassee, two of the new justices -- Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck -- were nominated last month by President Donald Trump to serve on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Both Lagoa and Luck would have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate before their new posts are official and before the state’s nominating commission can begin looking for their potential successors. The commission has nine members, five appointed by the governor and four recommended by the Florida Bar, with veto approval by the governor. That’s one of the issues leading to the further politicization of the court.
State legislators are trying to change that selection process back to the fairer version that served the state well for decades: Three appointments by the governor, three by the Florida Bar, and three selected by those six appointees. Don’t hold your breath; similar legislation did not receive a hearing this year. Meanwhile, the current nominating commission will again recommend a list of candidate for the court,, and the governor selects from that list. While DeSantis most certainly should have asked the commission in January to put at least one black candidate on the list of nominees, the commission should have recognized that was necessary in the first place.
To his credit, DeSantis’ record of appointing black judges to lower state courts is already better than his predecessor’s. Former Gov. Rick Scott appointed fewer blacks to lower courts during his eight years in office than DeSantis has in less than a year, the Orlando Sentinel reported last month. Four of DeSantis’ 32 lower court judicial appointments so far have been black, while only one of Scott’s 34 appellate court appointments was black, and that occurred in his final month in office. Now DeSantis has another opportunity to set things right at the Supreme Court.
A more diverse judiciary makes for a more informed and fairer court. About 17 percent of Florida’s population was black in 2018, according to the U.S. Census. Diversity by race, ethnicity and gender on the state’s highest court is imperative for all Floridians to have confidence in the system. DeSantis made a serious mistake in January by not demanding a more diverse pool of applicants for the three vacant seats on the Florida Supreme Court. Now he unexpectedly has an opportunity for a do-over. He should do the right thing and appoint at least one black justice.
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