Perry exit allows Gov. Scott to place imprint on Supreme Court


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Rick Scott will make his first appointment to the Florida Supreme Court after Justice James E.C. Perry announced Monday he will retire in December.

Perry, 72, is forced to leave the court because the state Constitution requires justices to retire when they turn 70 years old. The law also allows justices like Perry to fulfill the remainder of their terms, depending on when their birthdays fall.

Perry, a Columbia Law School graduate, was appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist to the state's high court in 2009. Nine years earlier, then-Gov. Jeb Bush tapped Perry to serve as a trial judge in the 18th Judicial Circuit.

"After over 16 years of proudly serving the citizens of the state of Florida, first as a circuit judge and currently as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court, I am constitutionally mandated to retire at the end of my current term," Perry wrote in a letter announcing his Dec. 30 retirement. The letter was delivered Friday to Scott and released to the public Monday.

Perry is among five jurists who make up a liberal-leaning majority of the seven-member court, which has drawn the wrath of the Republican governor and the GOP-dominated Legislature. Other members of that bloc are Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince.

Scott's anticipated appointment of a third conservative to the bench, joining justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, "may very well change the way the court has been ruling on cases," former Justice Gerald Kogan said in a telephone interview Monday.

While judges are on the whole open-minded and fair, they can sometimes render "surprise" votes on certain hot-button issues, Kogan said.

"When any judge comes to a court, that judge does not get rid of all of their lifetime experiences and their philosophies. Even if they are honest and above board, it's going to impact the way in which they will render a decision, depending on the particular case that comes before the court," he said. "I've seen people vote on the court in a certain way which would be completely out of context for what they usually do. But that's because they have a certain philosophy in a certain area."

Scott, who regularly appoints judges to lower courts, told reporters Monday that he takes the role seriously.

"Think about it, every individual, every business wants to make sure when they go through the court system, it's going to be a fair system. It shouldn't matter what judge you get," Scott said. "What I try to do is find people that will uphold the law. And so it's a responsibility I have and I take very seriously."

Scott said he is looking for two characteristics in a candidate.

"If you talk to any judges that I've appointed, that I've interviewed, I generally care about two things. Are they going to be humble in the process, and are they going to uphold the law. That's what I care about. I want people that want to uphold our existing laws," he said. "I get to sign or veto bills. I don't pass laws. I expect our court system to uphold the laws of our state."

Scott will pick Perry's successor from a list of nominees provided by a nine-member Judicial Nominating Commission. The panel includes Jesse Panuccio, who formerly served as the governor's general counsel and as Scott's executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity; Daniel Nordby, a lawyer who worked for the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Department of State, and is also a former general counsel of the Republican Party of Florida; and Fred Karlinsky, an influential insurance lobbyist.

The nominating commission is expected to submit between three and six names to Scott in November, though the list could come as early as October, said Jason Unger, chairman of the panel. Perry's replacement will have to be a resident of the area covered by the 5th District Court of Appeal, which stretches across the state from Brevard to Citrus counties and includes counties such as Orange, Volusia, Marion and St. Johns.

Applicants must also have been a member of The Florida Bar for at least the past 10 years, as required by the state Constitution.

"We generally look for the six most qualified applicants," said Unger, who was appointed to the commission in 2008. "I don't think we can hypothesize on how applicants can judge, necessarily."

Sandy D'Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association and Florida State University, said he is worried that changes instituted under Bush "have pushed the judicial nominating commission process much closer to being patronage committees."

"The integrity of the people on the nominating commissions is at stake as well. I don't think they can wind up, for a Supreme Court appointment, nominating somebody who's a political hack. I just don't think they'll do it," D'Alemberte said. "They may nominate somebody conservative, but I hope they won't nominate somebody who's so archly political that has only credentials as a party operative."

Born in North Carolina, Perry --- who said he decided to become a lawyer the night civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated --- became Seminole County's first black judge after being appointed by Bush. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Perry returned to the South and went to work for Georgia Indigent Legal Services.

"The betterment of mankind was always my objective in life," Perry told the Florida Bar Journal earlier this year.

Perry "contributed immensely to the collegiality of the court and the jurisprudence of Florida," D'Alemberte said.

Florida Bar President Bill Schifino called Perry "a giant of a man."

"Justice Perry's a terrific man and we're going to miss him greatly. He has served the citizens of the state well," Schifino said.

Perry brought "a very human touch" to the bench, former Justice Harry Lee Anstead said in a telephone interview.

"That was probably the most important quality he brought to our judiciary as a trial judge and when he came to the Florida Supreme Court," Anstead said.

News Service reporter Jim Turner contributed to this story.