Editorial: Preserve diversity on the Florida Supreme Court

The court’s two women and one African-American are set to retire
Published November 8 2018

Interviews conclude Friday for the 59 candidates who want a seat on the Florida Supreme Court, which will decide issues critical to all Floridians for decades. With the court’s two female justices and one African-American justice set to retire, the panel screening the candidates should commit to maintaining diversity on the state’s highest court. Florida is becoming a younger, more colorful place all the time, and the state Supreme Court should reflect that diversity.

The interviews were scheduled over four days, wrapping up today in Tampa. The applicants include a handful of well-qualified Tampa Bay area judges and attorneys vying for one of the three spots. The Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, a nine-member panel appointed either directly or indirectly by Gov. Rick Scott, will soon send between nine and 18 names to the new governor, who must choose from among those finalists.

The commission members should commit to ensuring that the court reflects Florida’s population. Justices Peggy Quince, Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis have reached the mandatory retirement age and will leave in January. Their departures mean that the court is losing both its female justices and its only African-American justice. Among the 59 applicants are at least six African-Americans, 10 women and four Hispanics. Choosing the most qualified justices should be a careful, apolitical process and should include examining the candidates’ backgrounds and life experiences and how their gender and race shaped them. It’s not about meeting any quota but about assembling a group of justices who bring varying perspectives to the cases they will hear.

The three retirements created a contentious dispute over who should get to appoint their replacements. Scott insisted the task should fall to him, which conflicts with precedent and the will of the voters. Thankfully, the Florida Supreme Court itself ruled on the issue, deciding that the authority lies with the next governor. That did not stop the Judicial Nominating Commission — all appointees of Scott — from going ahead with applicant interviews. That process should have been delayed until after Tuesday’s election, and allowing the process to start fresh for Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis. That might have inspired others to apply, and nothing would have stopped those who already applied from re-submitting their names. Scott’s influence looms large over the process regardless. He has put his political loyalists on the JNC, which was never supposed to be an apparatus for a governor wielding his ideology over the courts. Yet that is what has happened — and why these three appointments deserve so much scrutiny.

The three upcoming vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court will be filled by judges who could sit on the court for a generation, deciding cases with far-reaching impact on issues including privacy, criminal justice, education equity and women’s health. To be frank, they should not be decided by seven white men but by a panel of justices who represent and reflect all Floridians.