State Senator Perry Thurston (D-ft. Lauderdale) on Tuesday announced that he has refiled legislation which would dramatically curb the governor’s partisan meddling in judicial appointments in Florida.
“Our judicial system hinges on an underlying belief that justice is blind,” said Senator Thurston. “But, as we’ve recently discovered, that blindfold has been filled with peepholes exploited by the governor, undermining any faith that justice will be rendered impartially or equally.”
At issue is the recent manipulation of judicial appointments to the state Supreme Court and, just this week, news reports about pressure from the governor’s office to secure an appointment for a favored judicial candidate in the 18th Judicial Circuit.
Senator Thurston first filed his legislation (SB138) for the 2019 legislative session, shortly after it became clear that incoming Governor Ron DeSantis had no intention of broadening a narrow search for applicants to the Supreme Court recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission, leaving the court without a single African American Justice for the first time in almost 40 years.
During that nomination process, of the 59 applicants who applied to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission for 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. Despite growing outcries, no attempts were made by the governor to reopen the search to boost diversity on the court.
More recently, Politico Florida reported that the Judicial Nominating Commission for the 18th Circuit was “required” by the governor’s office to broaden and then include a specific individual on a short list for recommendations to fill a court vacancy. That pressure led to the resignation of that JNC’s long-time chairman in protest.
Senator Thurston’s legislation 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. 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.
“We’re seeing the results of too much power concentrated in just one set of hands,” said Senator Thurston. “Our judicial system hinges on independence and objectivity, both of which have been eroded by this governor’s actions.”
In addition to Senator Thurston’s 2019 legislation, 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 has refiled his bill for the upcoming 2020 legislative session, which begins in January.