Judicial elections, democratic appointment (e.g., senate confirmation), and the Missouri Plan (a/k/a "merit selection")

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Saturday, May 2, 2020

Covid19 Pandemic Delays Governor in Filling Vacancies on Florida Supreme Court

Florida law gives Governor Ron DeSantis 60 days from Jan. 23 to fill vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court, but DeSantis said his power under his Mar. 9 pandemic emergency declaration allows him to extend the deadline.
Two of the court’s seven seats became vacant when two of DeSantis’ earlier appointments, Justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, were confirmed to the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Florida’s Constitution establishes a judicial nominating commission (JNC) charged with providing the governor “not fewer than three persons nor more than six persons” as nominees to fill vacancies, and Art. V, Section 11(c) states: “The governor shall make the appointment within sixty days after the nominations have been certified to the governor.” Those 60 days started Jan. 23 when the JNC submitted its nominations to Gov. DeSantis.
At a press briefing on Mar. 19, Gov. DeSantis was asked by a reporter: “You have until Monday to make two Florida Supreme Court decisions. Have you been able to interview all the nominees with everything that’s been going on?” The governor responded that he has interviewed the nominees but not read their judicial opinions in depth; therefore, he said “I will most likely delay under the state of emergency that deadline.” JNC chair Daniel Nordby agrees with Gov. DeSantis that the “slate of nominees isn’t affected by the expiration of the 60 days. I continue to have confidence in Governor DeSantis as he decides how best to fill these two vacancies from this talented list of nominees.”
However, not all court watchers approve of this delay. Adam Richardson, a West Palm Beach lawyer, asserts on Slate, that Gov. DeSantis “has been violating the state constitution since March 23. On that date, he refused to appoint two justices to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court of Florida by the constitutionally mandated deadline.” Richardson then refers to the case of the previous Florida governor, Charlie Crist, to miss the constitutional deadline for a judicial appointment. In 2009 Crist was sued by the retiring appellate judge whose seat on the Fifth District Court of Appeals he sought to fill. Gov. Crist rejected the JNC’s original six nominees, claiming that the panel overlooked qualified black candidates, and he asked the commission for a new slate. The JNC ignored this request, returning the same six names, and the governor subsequently refused to appoint a successor to Judge Robert Pleus. Judge Pleus’s suit against Gov. Crist came before the Florida Supreme Court, which held that “the Governor lacks authority under the constitution to seek a new list of nominees from the JNC and has a mandatory duty to fill the vacancy created by Petitioner's retirement with an appointment from the list certified to him” Pleus v. Crist, 14 So.3d 941, 946 (Fla. 2009). However, the court did not declare any repercussions if a governor passes the deadline.
The apparent power of the governor to exceed the 60-day limit would distinguish Florida from some other states with judicial nominating commissions. For instance, the Kansas Constitution says “In event of the failure of the governor to make the appointment within sixty days from the time the names of the nominees are submitted to him, the chief justice of the supreme court shall make the appointment from such nominees.” See Art. 3, § 5(b). Unclear whether an executive order declaring an emergency might forestall the chief justice. In a similar vein, the Missouri Constitution says “If the governor fails to appoint any of the nominees within sixty days after the list of nominees is submitted, the nonpartisan judicial commission making the nomination shall appoint one of the nominees to fill the vacancy.” See Art. 5, §25(a).

Thanks to Arrian Ebrahimi for research assistance.

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