TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The state NAACP demanded Friday that the nomination process for three appointments to the Florida Supreme Court be reopened after a list of 11 nominees did not include any African-Americans.
The call came a day after The News Service of Florida reported that the Supreme Court will not have a black justice for the first time in 36 years when Justice Peggy Quince leaves the bench on Jan. 8. Adora Obi Nweze, president of the NAACP Florida State Conference, said in a statement that Gov. Rick Scott and the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission have “failed the people of Florida.”
“No recent governor has allowed appointees to return a slate that doesn’t reflect the diversity of Florida,” Nweze said. “It’s a shame and disgrace we are still fighting for equality at all levels of government for black people and particularly representation on the state Supreme Court.”
She said every governor, dating back to Gov. Reubin Askew, who appointed the first black justice, Joseph Hatchett, to the Supreme Court in 1975, has assured there was at least one African-American justice on the seven-member court.
Nweze said the nominating commission, which released its 11 nominees on Tuesday, should reconvene and reconsider six African-American applicants who were among a pool of 59 lawyers and judges seeking appointment to the Supreme Court.
She also called on Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, who takes office next month and who will make the appointments, to “stand up to” Scott and the nominating panel “and demand what all other prior governors did with a slate that reflects the diversity of our state.”
Jason Unger, a Tallahassee lawyer who is chairman of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, declined to comment on the NAACP’s request to reopen the process.
The DeSantis transition team said Friday that the incoming governor “is grateful for the work of the Judicial Nominating Commission in their assessment and selection of the nominees” to fill the upcoming court vacancies.
“The governor-elect looks forward to evaluating each potential justice and is committed to appointing the three best individuals to serve on our state’s highest court,” the statement said.
In a statement Thursday, Scott’s office said the governor is required by the state Constitution to make court appointments from the list provided by the nominating commission.
“Our office does not control who applies to become a judge or what applicants are sent to the governor for consideration,” said McKinley Lewis, a Scott spokesman.
But Democrats and other critics say Scott has “stacked” the judicial nominating commissions for the court system with his appointees under a provision that allows him to reject potential commission members recommended by The Florida Bar.
Under a 2001 law, the nine-member commissions include five members directly appointed by the governor, with four members recommended by The Florida Bar and appointed by the governor.
But unlike the two prior Republican governors, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, who accepted the Bar recommendations and made the appointments, Scott has routinely rejected Bar candidates for the nominating commissions until he has received recommended members acceptable to him.
A 2014 Florida Bar report that looked at the issue of diversity among the nominating commissions reported that at that time, which was about midway between Scott’s two terms as governor, he had rejected the Bar recommendations for commission members 18 times.
Reacting to that, Florida Senate Democrats announced on Friday that they will push measures in the 2019 legislative session to overhaul the judicial nominating process.
Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said the list of nominees for the Supreme Court without a black applicant underscores “how politicized the process has become.”
“How can a population of more than 3 million African-Americans in this state have confidence in our highest court when their voices are being silenced?” Gibson asked.
She also noted the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission could have advanced up to 18 nominees under a provision that allows six nominees for each court vacancy. The vacancies are occurring because Quince and justices Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis will be forced to leave the court in January because of a mandatory retirement age.
Gibson also said the issue of diversity extends beyond the Supreme Court, with Scott failing to appoint a black judge to any of the five state district courts of appeal during his two terms. Scott has made 32 appointments to those courts.
Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he is working on legislation that would restore the nominating commissions to a system that would be similar to what was in place before the law was changed in 2001.
Under the prior system, each commission included three members appointed by the governor and three appointed by the Bar. The six members then appointed the remaining three members, who were not lawyers.
Under the current structure, Thurston said “not only does the governor have absolute control over the process, he has unfettered power to select judges that are mirror reflections of his own politics and personal beliefs.”
“In a state as diverse as Florida, that cannot stand,” said Thurston, an attorney.
But with a large Republican majority in the Legislature and an incoming Republican governor, efforts to change the judicial nominating process are likely to face resistance.
Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, filed a similar bill aimed at changing the judicial nominating process in the 2018 session. But the legislation never received a hearing. A similar proposal was rejected by the state Constitution Revision Commission last spring.