Though a majority of the justices expressed reservations, the Florida Supreme Court on Friday upheld the power of Gov. Rick Scott to appoint replacements for three circuit judges who plan to leave the bench in December.
The Supreme Court unanimously rejected arguments that voters should choose replacements for 10th Judicial Circuit Judge Olin Shinholser, 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Scott Brownell and 7th Judicial Circuit Judge Joseph Will during this year’s elections.
Each of the judges submitted his resignation in April but made it effective in December, legally creating a vacancy Scott can fill.
But while upholding Scott’s authority, justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, James E.C. Perry and R. Fred Lewis signed on to concurring opinions that said the outgoing circuit judges had used the process to ensure that replacements would be appointed and not elected.
“While I may even agree that the merit selection and retention of judges is far superior to the election of judges, the citizens of Florida clearly disagree,” Lewis wrote.
“Thus, it is truly a sad day for Floridians when their trial court judges may manipulate the electoral process and prioritize their personal preferences over those espoused in the very Constitution they swore to defend. In any event, such is the state of our law and this is a court of law, not one of personal preferences,” Lewis continued.
Though justices backed Scott’s power on appointing the circuit judges, they ruled against him in another case involving whether a Palm Beach county judge should be elected or appointed.
The circumstances in that case were different from the circuit judge issue, and the Supreme Court unanimously agreed the county judgeship should be on this year’s ballot. Justices ordered a special candidate-qualifying period next week.
In the Palm Beach case, County Judge Laura Johnson submitted a letter of resignation in April as she prepared to qualify last month to run for a circuit-judge seat.
The resignation was effective on the date of Johnson taking office as a circuit judge or on the date that her successor as a county judge would take office.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner said the Florida Constitution required the county judge seat to be filled by gubernatorial appointment, rather than by election.
But Palm Beach County attorney Gregg Lerman, a potential candidate to replace Johnson on the county bench, challenged Detzner’s stance at the Supreme Court.
The decisions in the circuit judge cases, however, will have a broader impact because the circuits include voters in 10 counties.
The 10th Circuit includes Highlands, Polk and Hardee counties; the 12th Circuit includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties; and the 7th Circuit includes Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties.
Shinholser, Brownell and Will made their resignations effective in late December, shortly before their terms would otherwise end in January 2017.
The letters of resignation were submitted before the early May qualifying period for this year’s judicial elections.
In court documents, Detzner’s attorneys pointed to a similar 2014 case in which the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld the authority of Scott to appoint a replacement for retiring Chief Judge Donald Moran in Northeast Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit. The Supreme Court declined to take up that challenge.
“(The) ‘ultimate question’ here … is whether petitioner has a clear legal right to qualify for election to the seat at issue,’’ Detzner’s attorneys wrote in response to a challenge filed by Lakeland attorney Steve Pincket in the 10th Circuit.
“And the answer is simple: No, because Article V (of the Florida Constitution) requires filling the vacancy by appointment, obviating an election for which the secretary could qualify candidates. The motivation of a judge in submitting his or her resignation is beside the point,” the response said.