Lack of diversity under current governor’s
judicial appointments spurs calls for reform
Alarmed by the upcoming mandatory retirement of the last African American justice on Florida’s Supreme Court, and lack of diversity among the candidates selected by the governor’s hand-picked commission to replace them, state Senator Perry Thurston (D-Ft. Lauderdale) on Wednesday announced legislation that would trim the executive branch’s influence in the nomination process.
“Governor Scott has already had a deplorable record on nominating diverse candidates for Florida’s appellate division,” said Senator Thurston. “Now, he wants us to believe that out of the many highly qualified African American attorneys and justices in this state, not one is suitable for nomination to the Supreme Court. This is political gerrymandering at its worst.”
SB 138 would restore the nominating process to a more equitable merit system in which the members of each Judicial Nominating Commission are 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.
That system, which was first instituted under Governor Reubin Askew in 1971 to remove politics and ensure diversity in judicial appointments, was changed under Governor Jeb Bush, leading to a power grab in judicial appointments which reached unprecedented levels under Governor Rick Scott. 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.
According to reports, 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, Governor Scott has not appointed a single African American judge among his 32 appointments to Florida’s five appellate courts.
Senator Thurston noted that of the 59 applicants who applied to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission for the three upcoming court vacancies, six of them were African American, yet none was selected for the final cut of just 11 out of a possible 18 names submitted to the executive branch.
News of the limited diversity among the nominees has been met with growing calls to expand the search for potential candidates, including every member of the Senate Democratic Caucus which sent a letter yesterday to both outgoing and incoming governors urging them to broaden the pool of applicants to 18.
“Unless Governor-elect Ron DeSantis heeds the cries to expand the search, for the first time in almost four decades, no African American will serve on the Supreme Court, ending the move toward integration and equal justice that began under Governor Askew and ended under Governor Scott,” Senator Thurston said.
Earlier this year, the 2018 Constitution Revision Commission made similar recommendations for needed changes to the JNCs, 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.
Senator Thurston’s legislation, which has garnered the support of the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, has been filed for the upcoming 2019 legislative session, which begins in March. While it would not impact the current round of Supreme Court appointments, if successful, future judicial appointments would be selected under the more diverse nomination process.