Search begins for next FL Supreme Court justice: Hot-button cases wait in the wings

High court likely will face redistricting, abortion, other pivotal cases

By: - May 5, 2022 3:27 pm
Florida Supreme Court

Florida Supreme Court. Credit:

The process has begun to fill the vacancy left on the Florida Supreme Court by the retirement on April 29 of Justice Alan Lawson, who resigned after being passed over for chief justice in favor of DeSantis appointee Carlos Muñiz.

The vacancy presents an opportunity for Gov. Ron DeSantis to name a Black appointee to the Florida Supreme Court — there are none at present. He attempted to appoint Judge Renatha Francis to the court in 2020.

However, the court ruled that she was unqualified because she hadn’t been a member of the Florida Bar for the required 10 years. He ended up appointing Jamie Grosshans, a white woman, instead.

Francis, a family and probate judge in West Palm Beach, was a few months shy of qualifying when DeSantis selected her on May 26, 2020, having joined the Bar on Sept. 24, 2010. Meaning, she would qualify now.

Gov. Ron DeSantis at Jan. 22 press conference in Tallahassee, with newly appointed Florida Supreme Court justice Carlos Muñiz. Credit: Julie Hauserman

Meanwhile, the shift in leadership at the court, effective on July 1, suggests DeSantis is lining up his ducks for legal challenges to his congressional redistricting plan and abortion rights.

Muñiz edged out Lawson even though the latter holds more seniority, traditionally a factor in selecting chief justices. The office oversees the entire state court system and does much to set the agenda.

Court politics

Regarding abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court is clearly poised to reverse the landmark Roe v. Wade, but existing Florida Supreme Court precedents hold that the state Constitution’s right to privacy protects access to the procedure whatever the robes in Washington, D.C., might say.

The nonprofit investigative news site Florida Bulldog reported on April 3, citing an anonymous court insider, that DeSantis and his court appointees view Lawson as too moderate to guide the justices through these important cases.

And Muñiz’s background is thoroughly political. He has served as legal aide and in other capacities for figures including former Gov. Jeb Bush, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, plus stints in the private sector. DeSantis appointed him shortly after taking office in 2019.

Justice Alan Lawson. Credit: Florida Supreme Court

Lawson, by contrast, served as a trial judge and spent 10 years on the state’s Fifth District Court of Appeal. Former Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to the high court in 2016. His resignation takes effect on Aug. 31.

In announcing Muñiz’s elevation, the court said that choices of chief justice are “based on managerial, administrative, and leadership abilities, without regard to seniority only.”

The process

As for what happens now, the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission met by telephone on Thursday morning to set the schedule for soliciting and vetting nominations for the state’s highest court.

Applications are due no later than 5 p.m. on May 27. The nine-member commission will meet privately on June 1 to begin reviewing nominations. Interviews will begin on June 11, running over into June 12 if necessary.

The commission will decide upon names to send to DeSantis “likely right after the interviews but it may depend on how late we go on the last day,” commission chairman Fred Karlinsky told the Phoenix by email.

The commission must nominate at least three and no more than six candidates.

Federalist society

Attorney and judge Renatha Francis had been appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to sit on the Florida Supreme Court but lawsuits ensued and she was unable to join the court. Credit: Schreenshot, Florida Channel.

DeSantis says he favors jurists who don’t legislate from the bench. In practice, that means staunch conservatives, and appointments he has made since assuming office have shifted the court solidly to the right. Most of his appointees have been affiliated with the Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies, which grooms young conservatives for legal careers including judgeships.

DeSantis also has peppered the ranks of the state’s JNCs with Federalist members. There are 27 of these commissions for various judicial levels, including ones for the Supreme Court and each of the five appellate districts.

Karlinsky, co-chairman of the insurance and regulatory practice group at Greenberg Traurig, is listed in his firm bio as patron of that society.

Florida uses a “merit selection” process to pick appellate judges, a system adopted following Supreme Court corruption scandals during the 1970s. The idea is for legal experts to screen bench candidates and then let the voters decide at the end of their terms whether to retain them.

The Legislature voted under Bush to give governors more authority in the process, and Scott and DeSantis took advantage of that power to politicize the process, as a Phoenix commentary explained in 2020.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.