Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news from Florida for working families since 2007


If You Are Govenor DeSantis, How Do You Pick a Supreme Ct. Judge? Ans: By Blocking Out the Sun

Another DeSantis Sunshine Dispute

Gov DeSantis thinks blocking out the sun is the way to pick a supreme ct judge
Photo: Tyler van der Hoeven via Unsplash  | Columbia County Observer graphic

When I worked in Atlanta, Georgia, legislators were revising the state's public meetings and open-records laws — what we call "Government in the Sunshine" down here in Florida — and some fellow Capitol reporters thought I was just bragging about my home state's traditions of open government.

Oh sure, my ink-stained colleagues would scoff. You could go to a House committee meeting or read some correspondence in the governor's office, and they'll just let you see it all. Yeah, right; next, you'll want us to believe they even post notices of meeting times and hand out agendas of what's to be discussed.

Those seemed like alien, vaguely threatening ideas back when Georgia was still shaking off some of its Old South ways. But what I saw were some entrenched differences in attitudes. In Tallahassee, public business was considered to be the public's business, and free access was assumed, while politicians in much of the South jealously guarded their power to make decisions behind closed doors.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the conservative Republicans who run Florida government seem to yearn for the era when a few bosses known as “pork choppers” could divvy up the swag privately.

A case is pending at the 1st District Court of Appeal contesting the secrecy of DeSantis’ method of judicial selection. Stripped of all its constitutional and statutory considerations, the issue between the governor and a citizen identified only as “J. Doe” is whether DeSantis can assert executive privilege to withhold clearly public information just because he feels like it.

It began almost two years ago when DeSantis told conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt he has a covey of “six or seven pretty big legal conservative heavyweights” who screen potential Supreme Court justices. Plaintiff Doe sought to find out the membership of this brain trust, and the governor's office rejected his inquiry, citing a novel legal doctrine of "I don't wanna, and you can't make me."

That was good enough for Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey. Her ruling supporting DeSantis is on appeal, with Attorney General Ashley Moody representing the governor. She sure isn’t representing the people of Florida, who elected her to sit next to DeSantis at Cabinet meetings but not to spit seeds when he eats watermelon.

We used to have attorneys general like Bob Shevin, Jim Smith, and Bob Butterworth who believed the public's right to know meant more than the governor's right to make stuff up.

But if you’re hoping to succeed this governor, as Moody appears to be, it’s best not to bother DeSantis over picky little details, like laws.

This is just one of a handful of sunshine disputes DeSantis seems to relish. His operating principle seems to be that Floridians are entitled to hear whatever he chooses to divulge at his taxpayer-financed public appearances in four or five cities a week, to see any press releases his staff cranks out at public expense and then applaud as he waves, smiles and says, “Thanks — have a great day” on his way out of an event.

If the appellate court reverses Dempsey and says Doe may see correspondence between the governor and the advisers, DeSantis will just appeal to the Florida Supreme Court — which happens to be stacked with justices he appointed, on the advice of those “big legal conservative heavyweights.” If the appellate court sides with DeSantis, a group of open-government advocates (including some of the state’s major news outlets) will carry on the appeal.

This is unfortunate all around. The news media are on hard times and shouldn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars litigating this stuff. The courts don’t need one more embarrassment at a time Donald Trump seeks a divine right of presidential supremacy in the nation’s highest tribunal — one member of which just got caught with an upside-down flag in his yard.

And how does this benefit DeSantis and state government? Some confidentiality is normal in any big business, but what harm might befall the republic if we find out who the learned counselors the governor consults in choosing judges?

Executive privilege encourages a free-wheeling discussion among the governor and his top aides involving people, events, and issues affecting our lives. If there's an e-mail or phone note saying, "Don't appoint that guy; he could hide his own Easter eggs," or maybe, "She supported Charlie Crist in 2014, so we don't want her," that's a little awkward, but everyone will get over it.

Executive privilege didn't work for Richard Nixon when he tried to hide his criminality. It is too high a price for the public to pay to protect Ron DeSantis' petty, petulant desire to have his own way.

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