Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Gov. Scott's Contempt of Court Must Be Stopped

Florida Gov. Rick Scott continues to build a record that no successor should be allowed to emulate.

None should even want to. But you never know.

Twenty-one times now, Scott has rejected lawyers recommended by the Florida Bar for seats on some of Florida’s 26 judicial nominating commissions.

The latest such act was on April 16, when he refused the three people proposed for a vacancy on the nominating commission for the First District Court of Appeal.

Jeb Bush had similar power for six of his eight years in office. How many times did he wield it?


Charlie Crist had dozens of such opportunities during his four years as governor. How many times did he send lists back?


Let’s not be misunderstood. Bush and Crist were hardly shy about remaking the nominating commissions, which had been politically independent for nearly 30 years, into the functional equivalent of patronage committees.

As people recommended by the Bar hold only four of the nine seats on each commission, their voices were guaranteed to be in the minority. Nonetheless, the commissions continued to nominate some qualified people for vacant judgeships.

But there was a noticeable increase in the number of political aparatchiks and party hacks being fitted for judicial robes.

Scott’s behavior, however, signifies something even more sinister. He plainly wants to make sure that there won’t be even a single voice of dissent whenever he wants to put a particular someone — Pam Bondi, perhaps? — on the bench.

The First District Court, one of five regional appellate tribunals, is second in importance only to the Florida Supreme Court. That’s because most challenges to state agency rules and actions eventually arrive there.

Packed in recent years with people who worked directly for governors and attorneys general, is the First District now disposed to become a rubber-stamp for executive power?

It certainly acted like one recently when a three-judge panel disposed of a lawsuit challenging blind trusts as a contradiction of full and public disclosure. Instead of ruling on the merits, the court held the case simply shouldn’t be heard. One judge did warn, though, that blind trusts might possibly be illegal.

Though not a defendant, Scott was the real person of interest in that litigation.

The three attorneys he apparently considered unworthy of appointment to that court’s nominating commission are a former Florida Bar president, Kelly Overstreet Johnson; Christine Russell, the daughter of another former Bar president, Terry Russell; and Linda B. Edwards, an African-American labor and employment lawyer. One of them would have replaced Timothy M. Cerio, who recently became Scott’s general counsel and is obviously hand-selecting his successor at the nominating commission.

The situation is a total and disastrous betrayal of the integrity of the judiciary, which is what a notably unselfish governor, Reubin O’D. Askew, intended to protect when he established nominating commissions in 1972.

To keep them independent of anyone’s direct control, he provided that the governor and the Bar would appoint only three people to each of the commissions. Those six members would then appoint three non-lawyers.

Successors Bob Graham, Bob Martinez and Lawton Chiles accepted the system as it was.

The destructive change came in 2001, a year after the Florida Supreme Court’s split decision to order a vote recount that might have barred Jeb Bush’s brother from the presidency had the U.S. Supreme Court not overturned it.

To discourage resistance from the Bar, Republican legislators had even more damaging legislation on the shelf. To mollify the Bar, they provided the opportunity to recommend people for the governor’s consideration — without limit on how many lists he might send back.

In my opinion, it’s past time for the Bar to stop facilitating Scott’s plan for a puppet judiciary.

One way to do that would be to simply refuse to send him any second lists, although the Supreme Court might take a dim view of such a strategy.

Another would be to recruit retired judges from the respective courts to serve as nominating commissioners. That would be asking a lot of them, however, and not just because the application process is bothersome. It would expose them to the humiliation of having their names rejected, too.

Above all, the leaders of the legal profession need to start calling Scott out for what he’s doing.

And they need to get behind a nascent effort for an initiative to amend the Constitution to protect the court system from politicians like Scott.

Let the governor appoint only three members of each commission once again.

Have the Bar directly appoint three, as it used to.

And for the final three, let them be chosen by the Florida Senate, subject to the minority party’s approval. Over recent years, the Senate — unlike the House — has shown that it can rise above politics when necessary.

But however it’s done, Scott’s contempt of court must be stopped.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times and author of Floridian of His Century:The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins. He lives in Western North Carolina.  Column courtesy of Context Florida.

This piece was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

Graphic: Added by the Observer

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