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Gov DeSantis Tilts FL Supreme Court to the Right

Newly appointed FL Supreme Court justice Carlos Muniz at a Tallahassee press conference. In background, left to right, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

TALLAHASSEE – Solidifying a conservative majority, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday made his third appointment to the Florida Supreme Court, selecting a former top legal aide to Gov. Jeb Bush and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

DeSantis tapped Carlos Genaro Muñiz, 49, as the third justice he has appointed since he took office earlier this month. DeSantis got the opportunity to name the new justices because mandatory retirement forced out three long-serving members of the Supreme Court: Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. They were part of a liberal 4-3 court majority that is now likely to be replaced by a conservative majority.

Muñiz most recently served as the general counsel under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; he was appointed by President Donald Trump. Before that, he served a variety of government legal roles, including as a deputy general counsel to Bush and as Bondi’s deputy attorney general and chief of staff. He was also a top aide to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, when Rubio was speaker of the Florida House.

“When you ask them about Carlos, the praise is effusive …. People all say this is a guy who is brilliant but really humble,” DeSantis said about Muñiz’s former bosses.

The new Supreme Court faces a long list of pending legal questions, including a review of the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law and whether cities should be allowed to set their own minimum wage laws. Advocates for a woman’s right to choose to end her pregnancy are also keenly watching developments on the new court, chiefly because the current state Supreme Court has consistently upheld the right to privacy in the state Constitution. The privacy clause has led the Court to repeatedly reject attempts by the state Legislature to restrict a woman’s right to choose.

DeSantis said he was impressed by Muñiz’s understanding of the so-called “separation of powers” doctrine.

“He understands the proper role of the court,” DeSantis said. “I think that is a very useful perspective to be able to bring to the court, particularly because one of the criticisms I’ve had with the court is that they have not understood their proper jurisdiction and they have expanded beyond where they should.”

Muñiz, a graduate of the Yale Law School, said the bulk of his legal experience has been in public service, working for “principled leaders.”

He credited Bush and his former general counsel, Charles Canady, who is now the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, for bringing him to Florida in January 2001 and providing a “gateway to so many blessings in my personal and professional life.”

“I wanted to work for principled leaders and I wanted to be part of teams that sought to promote the common good through a restrained government, a commitment to the rule of law and a belief in the God-given dignity and worth of every human life,” Muñiz said.

As a legal adviser to some of Florida’s top conservative leaders, Muñiz has played a key role in some of their major policy initiatives, including Bush’s efforts to expand the use of publicly funded scholarships to send students to private schools and Bondi’s legal challenge of the federal Affordable Care Act.

Muñiz said there would be a difference between his role as an adviser and his role as an appellate judge.

“I will have a solemn duty to set aside my own policy preferences. I wholeheartedly welcome that obligation,” he said.

Muñiz said “humility” would be another of his judicial guideposts.

“For a judge, humility means an unwavering respect for the separation of powers. The role of a judge is to preserve the Constitution, not to add to it or subtract from it,” he said.

In addition to Muñiz, DeSantis has also appointed Justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck to the seven-member Supreme Court.

By law, voters get a chance to decide whether to retain Florida Supreme Court justices periodically. The three new justices DeSantis chose will face voters in 2020. The other current justices – Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga, C. Alan Lawson and Charles Canady – are up for a retention vote in 2022.

Muniz and Lagoa are members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that promotes a philosophy of reducing government regulation, limiting court access, opposing marriage equality and increasing abortion restrictions.

In appointing Muñiz and Lagoa, DeSantis has increased the number of Hispanic justices on the court to three, along with Justice Jorge Labarga – an historic first.

But with Quince’s retirement, Florida’s highest court will be without an African-American justice for the first time since 1983. Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo called that “extremely concerning.”

She said DeSantis has used his appointments “to stack the courts with his political allies,” noting Muñiz has no judicial experience but has “a long political resume.”

DeSantis said at a Tuesday press conference at the governor’s mansion that he likes the fact that Muñiz comes to the court with  experience as a legal “practitioner” rather than as a judge. Other governors have used their court appointments to balance judicial experience with lawyers who practice in the courts.

Supporters of DeSantis’s  appointments expect to see a Supreme Court that is more likely to be deferential to the state Legislature and more willing to uphold laws passed by conservative lawmakers.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who worked with Muñiz while Galvano was a House leader, praised DeSantis’s latest appointment.

“I know him to be a brilliant attorney and dedicated family man who will serve our state with great distinction in this important role,” Galvano said.

William Large, head of the conservative Florida Justice Reform Institute, which advocates for limits on how much people can collect in lawsuits against businesses, said DeSantis’s three court appointments close “the books on the previous majority’s record of judicial activism.”

He said DeSantis’s appointments, which came in the first weeks of his new administration, “will continue to reverberate” long after he has left office.

Like the other justices and judges around the state, Muñiz will be able to serve until he is 75 years old before he faces mandatory retirement. That’s because voters last fall approved a Florida constitutional amendment to raise the Supreme Court justice retirement age from 70 to 75. Voters will weigh in on whether to retain him periodically – the first time in 2020.

Muñiz is married to Kathleen Baur Muñiz, a former communications director for Gov. Bush. The couple has three children.

Bush tweeted praise for Muñiz’s appointment, saying Muñiz “will serve Florida with integrity and with the utmost respect for the rule of law.”

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.

This piece appeared in the Florida Phoenix and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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