TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to remove Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala from first-degree murder cases against her will.
Scott has stripped Ayala from 30 cases since she announced on March 16 that her office would no longer pursue the death penalty.
Ayala filed a lawsuit in April alleging that Scott was overstepping his authority by issuing a series of executive orders to reassign capital punishment cases to neighboring State Attorney Brad King. Oral arguments were heard in the case on June 28.
The Florida Supreme Court determined the governor was acting within his power.
"Applying this well-established standard of review to the facts of this case, the executive orders reassigning the death-penalty eligible cases in the Ninth Circuit to King fall well 'within the bounds' of the Governor’s 'broad authority,'" the justices wrote in their ruling.
They also suggested that Ayala has "exercised no discretion at all" in her decision to not seek the death penalty.
"Thus, under Florida law, Ayala’s blanket refusal to seek the death penalty in any eligible case, including a case that 'absolutely deserve[s] [the] death penalty' does not reflect an exercise of prosecutorial discretion; it embodies, at best, a misunderstanding of Florida law," the opinion read.
However, the ruling was not unanimous. Justice Barbara J. Pariente wrote in her dissenting opinion that it's up to the individual prosecutor to decide whether or not the death penalty should be sought.
"...The fact that the Governor is charged to faithfully execute the laws does not supplant the constitutional authority of the independently elected State Attorney to prosecute crimes and to exercise his or her discretion in deciding what punishment to seek within the confines of the applicable laws," Pariente wrote.
She also cited article IV, section 7, of the Florida Constitution, which states that the governor can not remove a state attorney from office unless he or she exhibits neglect of duty, malfeasance or incompetence, among other things.
Governor Scott has not claimed that any of these grounds for exercising his constitutional removal authority applies in this case. Therefore, because Governor Scott does not have the constitutional authority to remove Ayala from her position under article IV, section 7, the Governor relies on section 27.14, Florida Statutes," she wrote.
Justice Peggy Quince concurred with the dissenting opinion. Justices in the majority were Justice Alan Lawson, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, Justice Charles T. Canady, Justice Ricky Polston and Justice R. Fred Lewis.
Scott's office issued a statement applauding the Florida Supreme Court's ruling.
“Today’s ruling is a great victory for the many victims and families whose lives have been forever changed by ruthless, evil acts of crime. I absolutely disagreed with State Attorney Ayala’s shortsighted decision to not fight for justice. That’s why I’ve used my executive authority to reassign nearly 30 cases to State Attorney Brad King. These horrific cases include Markeith Loyd, an accused cop killer who murdered his pregnant ex-girlfriend and Orlando Police Department Lt. Debra Clayton; Everett Glenn Miller, another alleged cop killer who is accused of ambushing and murdering two Kissimmee Police Officers, Officer Matthew Baxter and Sgt. Sam Howard; and Callene Marcia Barton and Lakesha Chantell Lewis, who are accused of killing a helpless toddler.
“Crimes like these are pure evil and deserve the absolute full consideration of punishment – something that State Attorney Ayala completely ruled out. She unilaterally decided to not stand on the side of victims and their families, which is completely sickening. In Florida, we hold criminals fully accountable for the crimes they commit – especially those that attack our law enforcement community and innocent children,” Scott said.
Ayala released a statement Thursday afternoon.
"I respect the decision and appreciate that the Supreme Court of Florida has responded and provided clarification.
"The Supreme Court of Florida ruled (Thursday) that a case-specific determination must be made on first-degree murder cases. To ensure (the) court’s decision is heeded, I have organized a Death Penalty Review Panel comprised of 7 well-versed and experienced Assistant State Attorneys. This panel will evaluate each first-degree murder case in the 9th Judicial Circuit.
"With implementation of this panel, it is my expectation that going forward all first-degree murder cases that occur in my jurisdiction will remain in my office and be evaluated and prosecuted accordingly."
In response to Ayala’s statement to the media about the appointment of a panel in her district to review first-degree murder cases, John Tupps, Scott's communications director, said:
“Until State Attorney Ayala fully recants her statement that she will not seek the death penalty in any case, and the Governor is convinced that crime victims will be protected and justice will be served, our office does not plan to return any of the 29 cases that are being prosecuted by State Attorney Brad King. State Attorney Ayala needs to make it clear that her office will seek the death penalty as outlined in Florida law, when appropriate. State Attorney Ayala’s statement today leaves too much room for interpretation.”
Thursday's ruling will become final in 15 days if Ayala does not file a motion for a rehearing within that time. It's unclear if Ayala plans to do so.