TALLAHASSEE - Governor Rick Scott made a public records request Tuesday asking for all documents reviewed by two state Supreme Court justices involving their controversial "hot mic" exchange over the make up of a commission that recommends nominees to the high court.
“Let’s find out what was going on,” Scott told reporters after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. “We expect judges to be impartial. We expect them to simply do their job.
“What document were they talking about? What were they talking about?” he added. “It’s incumbent on everybody to understand what was being discussed.”
Scott also asked for "all raw, native uncompressed audio recordings from the courtroom."
Florida Supreme Court
Later on Tuesday, the Supreme Court sent the document to the governor's office, along with the audio recordings supplied by WFSU/Florida Channel, which are contracted to cover the court proceedings.
"This is the only recording in our custody and control," court spokesman R. Craig Waters wrote in a letter to the governor's general counsel, Daniel Nordby. Waters added that the court does not independently record proceedings.
The document passed between Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justice Barbara Pariente following oral arguments on Nov. 1 was a roster of members of the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), which draws up recommendations of supreme court nominees for the governor to consider.
Labarga is heard on the audio, which cuts in and out, stating the name of "Izzy Reyes" and that he "will listen to me."
Israel U. Reyes is one of four members nominated by the left-leaning Florida Bar that serves on the nine-member JNC. The other five are appointed by the governor, currently a Republican - Scott - who has vowed to fill the vacancies on his way out of office, and most likely with conservatives.
Questions are now being asked about the justices' exchange, particularly as the document was not part of the official "court record and not relevant to any of the proceedings," Jason Unger, chair of the JNC, told the Florida Record.
"It is concerning that the chief justice is looking at the nominating committee, and wants to influence the process of who is going to be on the next Supreme Court," Unger said. The exchange reveals "a desire and intent to influence the process," he added.
The exchange was made following arguments in a lawsuit brought by progressive organizations that, if successful, would bar Scott from making nominations on his last day of office, Jan. 8, 2019.
Justices Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince face mandatory retirement on the same day as they will all have reached the age of 70 by that date. All three are regarded as left leaning, to varying degrees.
In their lawsuit, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause argue that Scott does not have the power to appoint the new justices; that is the job of his successor.
They further argue that Scott will, in fact, no longer be governor by the time the justices must officially retire, that is at midnight on Jan. 8. Scott officially ends his term earlier that day.
Democrats have not won a governor's race since the 1994 re-election of Lawton Chiles, though Charlie Christ, formerly Republican and Independent, lost by only one percentage point in 2014.
Following last Wednesday's hearing, as argument ended and the lawyers were leaving the courtroom, the hot mic also caught Pariente mentioning the name "Panuccio" as she shows the piece of paper to Labarga.
Jesse Panuccio is a commission member. Pariente is then heard to use the word “crazy," to which Labarga is subsequently heard mentioning “Izzy Reyes” and that “he will listen to me.”
In speaking to reporters Tuesday, Scott stopped short of calling for the recusal of the two justices from any further involvement in the lawsuit over appointment authority.
"I think we have to find out," he said. "Let’s put the facts on the table. Then we can make a decision of how we should go forward.”
Nominating chair Unger described last week's incident between Labarga and Pariente as "perplexing," as the judiciary has nothing to do with the process of replacing justices. Unger emphasized that the JNC draws up a list of names from which the governor makes his or her pick.
"I think the justices were showing an exorbitant amount of interest," said Unger, before citing the comment that Reyes "will listen to me" as particularly troubling.