Supreme Court of Florida. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
In a span of seven months, two Florida Supreme Court justices — one who resigned and another who retired — left the bench without finishing their six-year terms and after voters had agreed to retain them. They easily procured lucrative jobs in private practice and opened the way for Gov. Ron DeSantis to pick reliably conservative justices who’ll further strengthen his hammerlock on the judiciary, according to state documents.
It was akin to how DeSantis has used his control of government boards to remove unwieldly board members in favor of more ideologically congenial appointees, as the Phoenix has reported. But the departure of two justices on the highest court in Florida was more of an undertaking.
More recently, Ricky Polston — appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008 — gave up his seat on the Supreme Court effective March 31, just five months after winning a merit-retention election that gave him another six-year term. Earlier, Justice Alan Lawson announced his retirement, effective Aug. 31, 2022, with two years left in his term.
Within days, Polston became general counsel and chief legal officer at Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-backed insurer of last resort. Lawson became a shareholder at Lawson Huck Gonzales, a start-up founded by a roster of politically connected attorneys.
The big winner, though, may be DeSantis, who no longer will have to rely on justices willing to depart from orthodoxy. If the governor maintains his own appointment history, the court will wind up with justices with deep ties to the conservative legal movement — with Jorge Labarga remaining as the sole justice with any liberal tendencies.
Had the two justices stayed on for their full terms, Polston and Lawson would have participated in major cases including a lawsuit challenging Florida’s 15-week abortion ban, which is pending before the justices. The state is asking them to overrule the 1989 Supreme Court holding that the Florida Constitution’s Privacy Clause protects access to abortion services. (Meanwhile, the Florida Legislature is poised to approve a six-week abortion ban.)
Polston’s replacement is moving quickly: The deadline to apply for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court expired at 5 p.m. Monday, according to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC).
“The judiciary is supposed to be an independent branch of government that rules based on law and the constitution, not political ideology. Unfortunately, in Florida, the guardrails that ensure an independent judiciary have been eroded,” said Ben Wilcox, co-founder of Integrity Florida, a nonprofit research institute.
“The resignation of Justice Polston and the rushed and secretive process to replace him have the appearance of an orchestrated attempt to give Gov. DeSantis another pick for a court justice who supports his political ideology, further causing the public to lose confidence in the court’s independence,” Wilcox said by email.
About two weeks
The swift move from Polston’s Supreme Court job to his new assignment at Citizens Property Insurance Corporation took about two weeks.
First came a two-paragraph resignation letter on March 20, from Polston to the governor. “I am writing to resign from the Florida Supreme Court effective March 31, 2023,” the first sentence read.
Before March 31, when Polston was still on the bench, the “Citizens Property Insurance Corp.’s board on March 29 unanimously approved the appointment of retiring Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston to become Citizens’ new General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer,” according to the Florida Bar News.
Further, “Polston will begin his new duties April 3,” which was Monday.
A press release by Citizens included biographical information, such as:
“A Florida Panhandle native who grew up in Graceville, Polston and his wife, Deborah Ehler Polston, have been married 45 years, have 10 children, including an adopted sibling group of six, and numerous grandchildren.”
Polston’s new salary wasn’t mentioned in that release, but Citizens spokesman Michael Peltier put it at $450,000.
The Phoenix reached out to Citizens, seeking an interview with Chief Executive Officer Tim Cerio to find out about the circumstances of Polston’s new hire, but the corporate spokesman did not reply. Cerio also sits on the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission and therefore will help vet Polston’s replacement.
However, Cerio told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he “recruited” Polston and that he was the only candidate interviewed.
“Justice Polston is an expert in insurance law, and he was my first choice,” Cerio told the newspaper in an email. “When Justice Polston decided he was interested in Citizens, he felt it was important to promptly resign from the court, and he did so.”
Citizens Chairman Carlos Beruff said in a written statement. “When the stars align, best stay out of the way. Justice Polston’s accounting, insurance litigation, and judiciary experience make him uniquely qualified to lead Citizens legal team as general counsel. We are lucky to have him.”
“I’m grateful to the board for their confidence and support,” Polston said. “After a fulfilling career in the Florida judiciary, I’m excited to join CEO Tim Cerio and the strong leadership team at Citizens for this new chapter of my professional life. Citizens is critical to bringing stability to Florida’s insurance market and I can’t wait to get started.”
During the 2022 election cycle, when Polston was up for retention, he provided a financial disclosure form to the state Division of Elections dated April 22, 2022, showing his income, assets and liabilities.
The form showed his Supreme Court salary as $227,217; as well as $18,000 from FSU College of Law; rent from a rental property in St. Port Joe in the Panhandle at $65,817, and an IRA of $1,360, totaling $312,394 in income.
That’s less than a $450,000 salary.
Lawson’s earning power
During the 2018 election cycle, Justice Lawson — appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016 — retained his job on the bench through a merit-retention election for a six-year term, although it didn’t last.
The high court on April 29, 2022, announced his retirement, effective Aug. 31, 2022. He gave up two years of service when he stepped down from the court.
In a letter to DeSantis, Lawson wrote: “By this letter, I announce that I will retire from the Supreme Court of Florida on Aug. 31, 2022, creating a vacancy on the court as of that date.”
In his financial disclosure form for the 2018 election, Lawson listed his net worth at $649, 598.
Then, a new law firm was created — Lawson Huck Gonzales — and Lawson got on board.
Other than Lawson, partner Paul Huck is married to Barbara Lagoa, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and previously served as chief deputy attorney general and general counsel to the Florida governor, and more recently was a partner in Jones Day’s Miami office, Florida Politics has reported.
Attorney Jason Gonzales served as general counsel to the governor, too, and ran the Tallahassee office and appellate practice of Shutts & Bowen, which has been closely tied to the DeSantis administration.
The firm has already attracted blue-chip clients, including Publix Supermarkets, Florida Power & Light, NextEra Energy, the Florida Healthcare Association, and the Greater Miami Expressway Agency. Additional clients include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the Florida Department of Management Services, Florida Politics reported.
The Phoenix also requested interviews with Polston and Lawson but haven’t heard back yet.
Just how conservative is the Supreme Court?
Polston had served on the Florida Supreme Court for 14 years and as chief justice from 2012 to 2014. For many years, he was on the conservative end of a court dominated by more liberal justices who were forced out by mandatory retirement, according to Phoenix reporting. Since DeSantis took office in 2019, Polston had voted with the new conservative majority in many important cases, as the Phoenix also has reported.
For example, in February Polston voted with the majority to remove “fairness and diversity” as goals of the court system’s judicial education programs. In January 2021 he voted to make it easier to sentence defendants to death.
However, in September 2020, Polston voted with the majority to reject DeSantis’ appointment of trial judge Renatha Francis to the court because she hadn’t been a member of the Florida Bar for the constitutionally mandated 10 years.
He dissented from a December 2021 ruling upholding the maximum sentence given a man — who insisted he was innocent — on the ground that he failed to express remorse.
He also dissented from a December 2021 order requesting seven new judgeships to allow for the creation of the Sixth District Court of Appeal, stretching from the Orlando area to Southwest Florida, so that judges sitting in the district courts that got realigned to accommodate the new court wouldn’t have to move to comply with residency requirements. The plan, Polston complained, was “based on where current judges live, not any objective basis of a need for more judges to do the work.”
Lawson, too, voted against seating Francis, and he sometimes departed from the conservative fold. To name one example, he voted with Polston in the case of the man who claimed he was innocent. The case overturned established constitutional precedent.
Lawson voted with Labarga, the last remaining justice with any liberal sympathies, in voting to sustain two marijuana legalization initiatives intended for last year’s general election ballot. The conservative majority determined that the initiative language risked misleading voters about what the measures would do.
It’s not clear whether those particular cases made any difference in the two justices’ decisions to leave the bench.
The Florida Supreme Court JNC is moving forward on Polston’s replacement. The commission issued its call for nominations last Wednesday ahead of Monday’s due date, with interviews tentatively set for next Wednesday, April 12.
The last time the JNC met, in 2022, to replace former Justice Alan Lawson, it called for nominations on May 18, due on May 27. Interviews began on June 11 and the panel forwarded six candidates to DeSantis on June 13. DeSantis selected Francis on Aug. 5.
Only three people have applied for the Polston vacancy: Belinda Gail Quarterman Noah, a Tampa attorney who was suspended from practice for 30 days in 2014 for mishandling her bankruptcy practice; Thomas Palermo, a circuit judge in Tampa, and Meredith Sasso, a former judge of the Fifth District Court of Appeal who moved to the new Sixth District court when it opened in January.
However, Fred Karlinsky, the Greenberg Traurig shareholder who chairs the JNC, asked the governor for an extension, according to a letter to him from DeSantis giving permission to reopen applications through Monday, April 17. The new deadline for completing the search is now Friday, May 5.
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