Pre­serve di­ver­sity on Supreme Court

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion -

In­ter­views con­clude to­day for the 59 can­di­dates who want a seat on the Florida Supreme Court, which will de­cide is­sues crit­i­cal to all Florid­i­ans for decades. With the court’s two fe­male jus­tices and one African-Amer­i­can jus­tice set to re­tire, the panel screen­ing the can­di­dates should com­mit to main­tain­ing di­ver­sity on the state’s high­est court. Florida is be­com­ing a younger, more col­or­ful place all the time, and the state Supreme Court should re­flect that di­ver­sity.

The in­ter­views were sched­uled over four days, wrap­ping up to­day in Tampa. The ap­pli­cants in­clude a hand­ful of well-qual­i­fied Tampa Bay area judges and at­tor­neys vy­ing for one of the three spots. The Florida Supreme Court Ju­di­cial Nom­i­nat­ing Com­mis­sion, a nine-mem­ber panel ap­pointed ei­ther di­rectly or in­di­rectly by Gov. Rick Scott, will soon send be­tween nine and 18 names to the new gover­nor, who must choose from among those fi­nal­ists.

The com­mis­sion mem­bers should com­mit to en­sur­ing that the court re­flects Florida’s pop­u­la­tion. Jus­tices Peggy Quince, Bar­bara Pari­ente and R. Fred Lewis have reached the manda­tory re­tire­ment age and will leave in Jan­uary. Their de­par­tures mean that the court is los­ing both its fe­male jus­tices and its only African-Amer­i­can jus­tice. Among the 59 ap­pli­cants are at least six African-Amer­i­cans, 10 women and four His­pan­ics. Choos­ing the most qual­i­fied jus­tices should be a care­ful, apo­lit­i­cal process and should in­clude ex­am­in­ing the can­di­dates’ back­grounds and life ex­pe­ri­ences and how their gen­der and race shaped them. It’s not about meet­ing any quota but about as­sem­bling a group of jus­tices who bring vary­ing per­spec­tives to the cases they will hear.

The three re­tire­ments cre­ated a con­tentious dis­pute over who should get to ap­point their re­place­ments. Scott in­sisted the task should fall to him, which con­flicts with prece­dent and the will of the vot­ers. Thank­fully, the Florida Supreme Court it­self ruled on the is­sue, de­cid­ing that the author­ity lies with the next gover­nor. That did not stop the Ju­di­cial Nom­i­nat­ing Com­mis­sion — all ap­pointees of Scott — from go­ing ahead with ap­pli­cant in­ter­views. That process should have been de­layed un­til af­ter Tues­day’s elec­tion, to al­low the process to start fresh for Gov.-elect Ron DeSan­tis. That might have in­spired oth­ers to ap­ply, and noth­ing would have stopped those who al­ready ap­plied from re-sub­mit­ting their names. Scott’s in­flu­ence looms large over the process re­gard­less. He has put his po­lit­i­cal loy­al­ists on the JNC, which was never sup­posed to be an ap­pa­ra­tus for a gover­nor wield­ing his ide­ol­ogy over the courts. Yet that is what has hap­pened — and why these three ap­point­ments de­serve so much scru­tiny.

The three up­com­ing va­can­cies on the Florida Supreme Court will be filled by judges who could sit on the court for a gen­er­a­tion, de­cid­ing cases with far-reach­ing im­pact on is­sues in­clud­ing pri­vacy, crim­i­nal jus­tice, ed­u­ca­tion eq­uity and women’s health. To be frank, they should not be de­cided by seven white men but by a panel of jus­tices who rep­re­sent and re­flect all Florid­i­ans.

Bar­bara Pari­ente

Peggy Quince

R. Fred Lewis

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