Recently there was an article published by the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board on declaiming “Gov. Ron DeSantis stiffs Florida Bar to stack courts with hard-right judges.” The article highlights the fact that the Governor “recently rejected the Florida Bar’s nominations for lawyers to serve on seven Judicial Nominating Commissions (JNC’s). The organization, which represents all 106,000 lawyers licensed in Florida, has called for new volunteers willing to have the governor embarrass them, too.”
JNC’s were intended to provide qualified judicial candidates on a nonpartisan basis. According to the Florida Bar webpage, JNCs’ roles are described as:
“Judicial merit selection is a way of choosing judges through appointment, using a nonpartisan nine-member commission of lawyers and non-lawyers to locate, recruit, investigate, and evaluate applicants for judicial office. These Judicial Nominating Commissions (JNCs) then submit three to six names of the most highly qualified applicants to the Governor, who must make a final selection from the list. Each Judicial Nominating Commission has nine members. Five members are appointed directly by the Governor, and the Bar sends nominations to the Governor to fill the remaining four spots.”
The formation of the JNC’s, and their importance in the judge selection process, comes directly from Article V of the Florida Constitution, which provides for the establishment of a judicial nominating commission.
Impartiality of the JNC’s is assured by the diverse seats on each JNC under Section 20 of Article 5. That section ensures that lawyers, nonlawyers and electors partake in the nomination process. The whole point of the JNC is to reduce cronyism and overt partisanship in the selection processes.
But Governor DeSantis will have none of these pesky anti-partisan ideals. The Sun Sentinel article states: “DeSantis is open about wanting to pack the judiciary, especially the appellate courts, with lawyers who echo his hard-right philosophies. To be sure of that, he needs like-minded nominating commissioners.”
DeSantis’ desire to pack the courts is an open rebuff of the virtues of the JNC’s. In July of 1971, Florida Governor Reubin Askew issued an executive order creating the Judicial Nominating Commissions. He stated: “For many years I have felt the judicial system of Florida should be removed from the arena of partisan politics. As governor, I am now in a position to further this goal by removing judicial appointments from partisan politics. This end cannot be reached by me alone. It will depend in great measure upon the dedication of those chosen to serve as members of the various Judicial Nominating Councils.”
Governor DeSantis, a Harvard Law School alum, makes a great mistake when he puts politics above the integrity of the courts. Rather than establishing himself as a leader willing to deride the divisiveness currently plaguing our nation and state, this partisan rigging of the system flies straight in the face of the reasons for the original executive order. We call upon our Governor and upon our fellow members of the Florida Bar to harken back to the original intent of the establishment of the Judicial Nominating Commissions; we must not sit complacent and allow the very erosion of the purpose of the law to be overridden by the partisanship of any party. Askew said: “Justice has no party label nor do qualified judges. It is to this end that the Judicial Nominating Councils must strive.”