The Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission will interview all 11 applicants vying to replace Justice James E.C. Perry, whose forced retirement is giving Gov. Rick Scott the opportunity to make an imprint on the state’s high court midway through the governor’s second term.
Perry, 72, is forced to leave the court because the state Constitution requires justices to retire when they turn 70 years old. The law allows justices like Perry to fulfill the remainder of their terms, depending on when their birthdays fall.
The nine-member nominating commission unanimously decided Monday to interview all the applicants for the post on Nov. 28. The panel plans to provide Scott a short list of six names that night or the following day, giving the governor plenty of time to make a decision before Perry’s resignation goes into effect Dec. 30, according to commission chairman Jason Unger.
“We wanted to do it a little expeditiously to give him enough time to do his full vetting,” Unger told The News Service of Florida in an interview Monday. “In an ideal situation, there’ll be no vacancy time. The governor will have his appointee ready to go, and actually start meeting with the court and the court processes, before the vacancy actually hits.”
Perry is among five jurists who make up a liberal-leaning majority of the seven-member court, which has drawn the wrath of the Republican governor and the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Scott’s anticipated appointment of a third conservative to the bench, joining justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, “may very well change the way the court has been ruling on cases,” former Justice Gerald Kogan told the News Service after Perry announced his resignation in September.
The selection of a Supreme Court justice can help define a governor’s legacy.
“It is one of those appointments and one of those decisions that a governor makes that has a lasting effect, often times far outlasting their service in the governor’s mansion,” Unger said Monday.
Based on their resumes, several of the candidates seeking to replace Perry would bring a decidedly more conservative approach to the bench.
For example, 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King has been an outspoken proponent of a new law dealing with the death penalty. In a 5-2 decision last month, the state Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it did not require unanimous jury recommendations for the death penalty to be imposed.
Another candidate, state Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, was just named to a leadership post by incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran. Metz, a lawyer, was elected to the state House in 2010 and also served on the Lake County School Board.
Two 5th District Court of Appeal jurists have also applied for the post. One of them — Judge Wendy Berger — once worked as an assistant general counsel for former Gov. Jeb Bush. According to her application, Berger was responsible for advising Bush on death penalty cases, as well as on criminal and civil justice issues. Scott appointed Berger to the appeals court in 2012.
The appellate court’s chief judge, C. Alan Lawson, has also applied. Bush appointed Lawson to the appeals court in 2006.
Other judges who have applied include 9th Judicial Circuit jurists Alice Blackwell, who has served on the bench since 1991, and Patricia Strowbridge, appointed by Scott in 2015; Judge Michelle Morley of the 5th Judicial Circuit; and Judge Michael Rudisill of the 18th Judicial Circuit.
The list of applicants also includes Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberta Bodnar, of the Middle District of Florida; Orlando trial lawyer Daniel Gerber; and Sylvia Grunor, a Maitland personal-injury and family-law attorney.
Perry’s replacement will have to be a resident of the area covered by the 5th District Court of Appeal, which stretches across the state from Brevard to Citrus counties and includes counties such as Orange, Volusia, Marion and St. Johns.
Applicants must also have been a member of The Florida Bar for at least the past 10 years, as required by the state Constitution.
The panel responsible for whittling down the list of applicants for Scott includes a number of high-profile lawyers tied to Florida Republicans.
Unger, the chairman, was on the team of lawyers who represented George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the 2000 Florida recount. Unger has also represented the Republican Party of Florida and the GOP-dominated House of Representatives in legal challenges involving redistricting.
The panel also includes Jesse Panuccio, who formerly served as Scott’s general counsel and as the governor’s executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity; Daniel Nordby, a lawyer who worked for the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Department of State, and is also a former general counsel of the Republican Party of Florida; and Fred Karlinsky, an influential insurance lobbyist with close ties to Scott.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida