Martin Dyckman: Scott is trying to pack the courts with compliant judges
The Florida Bar is all but begging lawyers to apply for once-coveted memberships on the panels that nominate judges for the governor to appoint.
With too few applications on hand for 12 of the 20 judicial circuits and one of the five district courts of appeal, the Bar has extended the deadline from Feb. 11 to March 21.
It’s no wonder.
Unlike his predecessors, Gov. Rick Scott apparently wants every member of every commission to see the justice system through his eyes.
That means no Democrats. No trial lawyers. No one who might take a citizen’s side against a corporation or the state.
Lawyers know that.
The dearth concerns two vacancies on each of the 26 judicial nominating commissions. The law requires the Bar to submit three names for each, 156 in all, to Scott.
He can reject entire lists without explanation and demand more. He’s done it 16 times.
Only 231 applications are in, with interest concentrated on the Supreme Court, four district courts of appeal, and the trial circuits comprising Broward, Dade, Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties.
Circuits with fewer than six applicants include those serving Tallahassee and most of the Panhandle, Jacksonville, Ocala, Pinellas and Pasco counties, Gainesville, Orlando and Key West.
As recently as 2011, Scott’s first year, there were 340 applications for 26 JNC member-ships. That was before his agenda became obvious.
The Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald reported four months ago how Scott has rejected the 16 lists.
He’s the first governor to do so since the law was changed in 2001 to deprive the Bar of direct appointments.
Under Gov. Reubin Askew, who created the nominating commissions, and successors Bob Graham, Bob Martinez, and Lawton Chiles, the governors named three to each panel. The Bar chose three. Those six then appointed three more members from the lay public.
But the 2001 Legislature gave governors the power to appoint all nine members. Four of the nine — by design, less than a majority — must come from the lists sent by the Bar.
Diversity is suffering in the commissions and, as a result, on the courts themselves.
Bar President Eugene Pettis warned the organization’s Board of Governors last month that diversity has become “very, very scarce” in the judiciary.
Among 913 trial judges, he said, there are only three Asian Americans, 58 African Americans and 84 Hispanics.
Of the 231 nominating commission applicants, there are only 18 Blacks and 27 His-panics. This dearth will be reflected in nominations to the bench, and it will be interesting to see how many get past Scott.
He recently rejected Tiffany Faddis, incoming president of the Hispanic Bar Association of Central Florida. She’s a Republican, but she’s also an active trial lawyer. When the governor’s office called to interview her, she said, it made a point of asking why she had begun representing civil plaintiffs instead of defendants.
Scott now has a majority of supporters on each commission, and if he is re-elected he will own them all.
“He wants people with humility,” Scott’s general counsel, Pete Antonacci, told the newspapers, “and he wants judges who will follow the law and not make it up as they go along.”
That is, of course, double-speak for judges who will rule as those who appoint them would expect.
Antonacci added that “The Florida Bar is not an accountable organization in any electoral way. The account-ability in the process is with the governor.”
Trouble is, the nominating system that was devoted to impartial justice is no longer ac-countable itself. It has become a sham, a camouflage for old-fashioned partisan politics, a cover for the governor to appoint whomever he wants without bearing the responsibility for it.
Florida has come a long way — the wrong way — from Askew’s time, when he established the nominating commissions to insure that “justice has no party label, nor do qualified judges.”
There’s no more important issue in the governor’s race. On that score, the mud flies both ways.
Scott Rothstein, a lawyer turned convict over a Ponzi scheme, has claimed in court that Charlie Crist put him on the 17th circuit nominating commission as a “quid pro quo” for contributions. With Crist — who denies it — now running for his old job as a Democrat, Scott’s supporters are exploiting this.
But at least Crist never rejected any of the Bar’s JNC lists.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Waynesville, N.C.