TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Rick Scott's long shot bid to replace three justices on the Florida Supreme Court before he leaves office was shot down Monday by the same panel.
In an unsigned order, the court ruled that the winner of November's gubernatorial election "has the sole authority to fill the vacancies."
It brings to an end a two year tussle following Scott's 2016 announcement that he planned to appoint replacements for three retiring justices, all sometimes perceived as liberal-leaning.
The League of Women Voters (LWV) and Common Cause initially asked the Supreme Court to issue an order last year, but it declined, ruling that it was "unripe" and could not do so until Scott took formal action.
Last month, he did so, asking the Judicial Nominating Commission to start the process of accepting applications for the court. The governor also stated he would make the appointments in consultation with his successor.
The LWV immediately went back to the court, which then issued the order. The court ruled, "Governor Scott exceeded his authority by directing the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) to submit its nominations to fill these vacancies by November 10, 2018.”
Both the term-limited Scott, who is pursuing a U.S.Senate seat, and Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, leave their positions at midnight on Jan. 7.
The Supreme Court order, while widely expected, certainly adds greater urgency, if it was needed, to the gubernatorial campaigns of Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillam. The winner has the chance to hugely influence the direction of the court, potentially for a generation.
For Gilliam, this is tempered by the fact that the majority of the JNC, which is charged with drawing up a list from which the governor chooses, were appointed by Scott.
"Today’s decision makes November’s election even more critical for the future of our state,” DeSantis spokesman Stephen Lawson said in an email to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.
“If Andrew Gillum is elected, out-of-state, radical groups would pressure him to appoint activist judges who would legislate from the bench to fit their own ideology. The consequences of this would be felt for generations, and it would be dangerous for every person in our state.”
"I am pleased the Florida Supreme Court has brought closure to this important issue finding, as we have consistently stated, that the next Governor of Florida will appoint the next three Supreme Court justices,” Gillum said in a released statement.
“It is a duty I take extremely seriously and, as governor, one of my top priorities will be to restore integrity to the judicial nominating process."
John Mills, attorney for League of Women Voters and Common Cause Florida, said that the people will have a important say over the future of the court.
This is especially so, Mills added, because the two candidate "have staked out very different positions on the kinds of people they are looking to appoint to the court."
Mills noted that Gillum has said he will "appoint diverse, qualified judges who represent the breadth and depth of people in this state."
His opponent, DeSantis, "has said he will 'appoint constitutional conservatives' who will be very different from the retiring justices, who he characterizes as 'liberal' and accuses of 'legislating from the bench for the past 20 years'," said Mills.
"Voters now have the opportunity to factor these positions into their choice for governor."