High court hopefuls pitch conservative credentials
Justice James E.C. Perry steps down after 7 years
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. –
The 11 candidates hoping to join the Florida Supreme Court present a stark contrast to Justice James E.C. Perry, who is stepping down after seven years on the court due to a constitutionally mandated retirement.
The exit of Perry --- one of five jurists who make up a liberal-leaning majority --- gives Gov. Rick Scott his first opportunity to shape a bench that has repeatedly vexed the Republican chief executive and the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Perry's absence will also be noticeable in other ways; the Columbia Law School graduate is one of two black justices on the seven-member court. All of the applicants seeking to replace him are white.
The high-court hopefuls include six judges, a veteran state attorney, an assistant U.S. attorney, a Republican state representative and two lawyers.
The nine-member Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission will interview all 11 candidates Monday. The panel plans to provide Scott a short list of six names that night or the following day, giving the governor plenty of time to make a decision before Perry's resignation goes into effect Dec. 30, according to commission chairman Jason Unger.
A close review of the applications of the five men and six women seeking to replace Perry --- lauded as a civil rights leader and appointed as a circuit judge by former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican --- provides a glimpse into the temperaments, qualifications and life experiences the candidates would bring to the bench.
Many applicants took pains to establish their conservative bona fides, at the same time stressing the attributes Scott established as a litmus test for Perry's successor.
"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," Scott told reporters in September after Perry announced his forced retirement.
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.
Many of the six judges vying for the post were appointed by Scott or Bush, including 5th District Court of Appeal Chief Judge C. Alan Lawson, who applied for two Supreme Court vacancies in 2008 but lost out to Perry for one of the seats. Perry joined the court in March 2009.
Religious and social conservatives urged then-Gov. Charlie Crist to select Lawson, a Florida State University Law School graduate who also unsuccessfully ran for the state House in 1986, according to his recent application.
"Anyone who applies for this position can say that they are committed to the ideal of judicial restraint and will faithfully follow the law if appointed. I do not know that any other applicant will have a track record to prove that commitment," wrote Lawson , who listed conservative justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston as references.
Another 5th District Court of Appeal judge, Wendy Berger, promised that her selection would "offer a consistent and conservative judicial philosophy, high moral professional standards of conduct, and diversity."
State Rep. Larry Metz, a Yalaha Republican who has received awards from Americans for Prosperity and the American Conservative Union, wrote that his experience as a legislator had "sharpened" his understanding of "the three co-equal branches of government."
"Under this separation of powers court cases must be decided fairly and impartially under the law and the adjudicated facts, and judicial decisions should effectuate justice in each case on the narrowest grounds necessary to support the decision," Metz, 61, wrote.
Several applicants, including Berger, highlighted their experience with death penalty litigation, one of the most time-consuming activities conducted by the state's high court.
Berger, appointed by Scott to the appellate court three years ago, formerly served as Bush's assistant general counsel in charge of the death penalty and clemency.
Berger had to make recommendations to Bush about which Death Row inmates should be executed and sentenced three defendants to death while serving as a circuit judge, she wrote.
In one case, Berger --- who earned a reputation for harsh sentencing during her tenure on the 7th Judicial Circuit --- noted that defendant Norman McKenzie "could best be described as professorial."
"The personal interaction I had with the defendant added another dynamic to the case and made the decision to impose the death penalty more difficult, despite the overwhelming aggravating circumstances supporting the sentence," she wrote.
Of all the applicants, perhaps 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King has the most experience with the death penalty.
King, who has held the prosecutor post for nearly three decades, played an instrumental role earlier this year in the creation of a new state law dealing with death penalty sentencing. Lawmakers hurriedly crafted the law in response to a January U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, that struck down Florida's death penalty sentencing system as unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.
King, who appeared frequently before lawmakers during committee meetings, was among prosecutors who recommended that Florida switch from a simple majority jury recommendation to a 10-2 recommendation for the death sentence to be imposed. The Florida Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling, recently decided that the law was unconstitutional because it did not require unanimous recommendations.
King, in his application, noted he was the only state attorney to seek a Supreme Court post in more than four decades. King said he is "uniquely qualified," especially because of his experience handling capital cases.
King, 59, also swiped at both the Legislature and the liberal-leaning court.
King criticized a recent ruling that overturned the death sentence of intellectually disabled murderer Freddie Lee Hall, convicted of killing a woman who was seven months pregnant.
"I learned from this case that courts are not always intellectually honest in their decision making," King wrote. "A majority of four simply decided that they would substitute their judgement for that of the trial court and decide that Hall should not be sentenced to death."
King also wrote of his role in the investigation of a suspended Hernando School Board member, at the request of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Florida Senate, in 1994. The Senate eventually took no action on the suspension, according to King's account.
"I took a valuable political lesson away from this interesting proceeding. Things are done in the Legislature to achieve a desired result. The facts and truth do not matter as much as what the political objective is," King wrote.
Another applicant, Osceola County Circuit Judge Patricia Strowbridge, appointed by Scott to the 9th Judicial Circuit last year, was instrumental in rewriting the state's adoption laws during Bush's tenure.
Strowbridge, 56, founded an Orlando adoption agency and focused on adoption, fertility clinics, surrogates and egg donors in her law practice. Strowbridge, who graduated from Georgetown University Law Center, also served as an adviser to onetime presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.
Meanwhile, 40-year-old Seminole County Circuit Judge Michael Joseph Rudisill, appointed by Scott to the 18th Judicial Circuit in 2009 and since re-elected, relied on his age to convince the nominating commission and the governor that he is fit for the job.
Rudisill's youth "offers the opportunity for a lifelong legacy," the judge wrote in a 22-page submission that failed to include requested information, such as significant cases he had ruled on or participated in as a lawyer, or his net worth.
"Not 5, 10 or 15 years. I am able to spend the next 30 years of my life on the Supreme Court, the highest court in our state, the greatest honor that a member of the judicary (sic) could hope for, and I can start that legacy now," Rudisill wrote.
News Service of Florida