Supreme Court Blocks Rick Scott From Picking Judge

According to the Florida Supreme Court, Governor Rick Scott is barred from appointing a new Palm Beach County court judge. The decision, which was unanimous, places the burden for replacing Judge Laura Johnson on the voters of Palm Beach County. However, the Supreme Court did allow Scott to choose three other judges to replace outgoing jurists around the state.

The Special Case of Palm Beach County

The dissension over the appointment of a Palm Beach County judge began when a criminal defense attorney, Gregg Lerman, requested a write of quo warranto from the court. This type of writ, named for the Latin term “by what authority,” inquires into a situation in which a particular individual may have improperly used a right or power given to him or her by the State. In this case, Lerman, who is running against Thomas Baker for the judgeship, claimed that the governor’s attempt to appoint a judge meant that it was difficult for himself and his opponent were having a difficult time setting up a campaign and collecting contributions.

In the other three cases in which circuit court spots were left open by resignation, the judges specifically asked that their seats be filled by appointment. One of the judges, Olin Shinholser, stated that he believed the appointment process was superior to election in a judicial context. However, Justice Barbara Pariente voiced a separate opinion in these cases in which she said she “reluctantly” concurred but was concerned about allowing individual judges to choose election or appointment for filling their own seats.

The Outcome

According to the decision, the Supreme Court justices relied on an earlier ruling that state law overrules the Governor’s constitutional power of appointment for judicial vacancies. This means that although the Florida State Constitution specifically confers the power for appointing judges to the governor, the court has ruled that state law overrides that Constitutional power. In this case, the law states that vacancies created by officials who resign to run for another state office, as in the case of Judge Laura Johnson, must be filled by election rather than appointment.

The court noted that despite amendments to the Constitution, the logic of the law implies that legislators meant for judges in these situations to be elected rather than appointed. The decision was unanimous, although two justices, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, concurred in result without agreeing with the legal premise behind the decision. There were no dissenting opinions.

The Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections has now been ordered by the court to reinstate an election for the office. This means that candidates who wish to run must qualify between June 6 at noon and June 10 at noon if they wish to have their names on the ballot for the special election which will take place on August 30.