By PAULA DOCKERY
One of the most consequential decisions a governor makes is his or her appointment of judges. Justices on the Florida Supreme Court and lower appeals court judges can have profound effects on the lives of all Floridians.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, in office for nine months, has appointed nine judges so far. How has he done?
In this highly partisan political climate, it depends on whom you ask—or, more specifically, on the party affiliation of whom you ask. That is a sad reflection of how we think about our judges.
To be fair, all three of his appointees to the Florida Supreme Court seem to be qualified and respected in the legal profession. If you want extremely conservative judges, you’ll be pleased. If you want more balance and more independence — like me — you won’t.
Our judicial branch was not supposed to be made up of highly partisan ideologues, yet we’ve come to understand that elections have consequences and to the victor go the spoils.
Judicial independence is difficult to obtain or sustain when the governor appoints most of the judges to the state’s highest courts.
Governors in Florida are responsible for appointing justices to the seven-member Supreme Court and judges to the 60-member appellate courts.
The 597 circuit court judges and the numerous county court judges are popularly elected in nonpartisan races, but governors are responsible for filling vacancies. This can lead to a lot of judicial appointments for any one governor.
Jeb Bush appointed 135 judges during his two terms as governor. Charlie Crist appointed 109 judges in his one term, and Rick Scott had a field day during his eight years by putting 242 judicial appointees on the bench.
DeSantis, a former U.S. House member, ran for governor touting his close ties to President Donald Trump.
When DeSantis took office, there were three immediate vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court because the justices had reached their mandatory retirement age. All were considered on the liberal side of the ideological scale.
DeSantis replaced them with extremely conservative appointees—Barbara Lagoa, Robert Luck, and Carlos Muniz. That drastically changed the court from a 4-3 split to a 6-1 conservative court.
Can you imagine getting to replace nearly half of the state Supreme Court? DeSantis was able to mold the court in his political philosophy and to shape the court for decades by choosing younger judges.
In an unexpected twist, two of his Supreme Court justices — who have only served for eight months — have been picked by Trump for the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. If they are confirmed, DeSantis would get to pick two more Supreme Court justices to replace them.
How was DeSantis — new to state government and only in office for weeks — able to quickly select these judges? He did so the same way other conservative governors and Trump do — by turning to the Federalist Society’s list of judicial candidates. That’s why Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck were chosen by both DeSantis and Trump.
What is the Federalist Society and why is it indirectly choosing our judges?
The Federalist Society is a group of conservatives and libertarians dedicated to getting conservative judges on courts throughout the country. It’s brilliant in its organization. It targets three groups — college students, lawyers and faculty — to recruit, train and develop a bench of potential judges. Plus, it has a support system with plenty of resources.
The society boasts of providing opportunities for effective participation in the public policy process, a nice way of saying the group can engage in a politically partisan way of stacking the courts.
Its public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, advocated for U.S. Supreme Court nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The firm pushed the narrative that Kavanaugh’s accuser confused him with someone else. It is best known for devising the swift boat veterans campaign that smeared John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.
Federalist Society members include a who’s who of conservative lawyers and judges, including many current and former Supreme Court justices. The Koch brothers and the Mercer Family — major Republican donor s— have invested millions of dollars to the cause.
In addition, Republican candidates for political office aggressively campaign on getting more conservatives on the court. That motivates Republican voters.
The Federalist Society, well-funded and organized, is at the pinnacle of its power and influence. It’s effective — but also a little icky.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.