Court packing and lack of diversity in judicial picks spur drive for legislative action
Senate Democrats on Friday announced their intention to reform Florida’s troubled judicial nomination process, a move that comes in response to wide-spread criticism that the judiciary has become highly politicized and no longer reflects the diversity of the people of this state.
“The latest nominations submitted by the Judicial Nominating Commission to the incoming governor underscore how politicized the process has become,” said Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville). “Of the 59 applicants, six of whom were African American, 11 names were sent by the JNC to the governor, and none were African American. How can a population of more than 3 million African Americans in this state have confidence in our highest court when their voices are being silenced?”
Additionally, Leader Gibson noted that the JNC could have sent a total of 18 names, but did not.
While the nominations to the Supreme Court are the latest example of court packing, the lack of diversity has been a troubling development in courtrooms elsewhere in the state. As recently reported, statewide, 84 percent of Florida’s judges are white, only 9 percent Hispanic, and a paltry 6.6 percent are African American. During his tenure, outgoing Governor Rick Scott has not appointed a single African American judge among his 32 appointments to Florida’s five appellate courts.
To change this, State Senator Perry Thurston (D-Ft. Lauderdale) is eyeing legislation to halt the ability of governors to gerrymander the selection process, and institute a process similar to the one which existed prior to former Governor Jeb Bush’s move to consolidate judicial picks in his hands by controlling the makeup of the state’s 26 JNC’s.
“Not only does the governor have absolute control over the process, he has unfettered power to select judges that are mirror reflections of his own politics and personal beliefs. In a state as diverse as Florida, that cannot stand,” he said. “The fallout from these nominations is apparent to any African American or Hispanic who has stood in a courtroom seeking justice from those incapable of rendering it. The scales are heavily weighted against them.”
Prior to 2002, the members of each JNC were appointed with three members selected by the governor, three members by the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar, and three lay members of the community agreed upon by the other six.
Currently, not only does the governor select five of the 9 members of each JNC, but he has veto power over the four nominees sent to him by the Florida Bar.
Without critical reforms, confidence in judicial independence will continue to erode, lawmakers warned. Earlier this year, the 2018 Constitution Revision Commission made similar recommendations, as did legislation filed in the 2018 legislative session by Senators Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) and Annette Taddeo (D-Miami). The CRC proposal languished in committee, while SB 420 was never given a single hearing in the Republican-controlled legislature.