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Panel Forwards 11 Finalists for Three Florida Supreme Court Seats to DeSantis

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Had Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum defeated Congressman Ron DeSantis in Florida’s gubernatorial race, there would have been far more drama associated with the list of 11 finalists for three Florida Supreme Court seats released this week by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC).

But DeSantis, the conservative Republican, not Gillum, the progressive Democrat, will select the next three state Supreme Court justices from the list, which was assembled and vetted by the JNC, a nine-member panel all appointed by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott.

Had Gillum won, this may have presented the first clash of his administration – even before he was sworn in – because it is unlikely the liberal would have endorsed candidates forwarded to him by a panel of conservative appointees.

Gillum probably would have challenged a November ruling by the Florida Supreme Court upholding state law that requires the governor to fill judicial vacancies from a list of applicants vetted and submitted by judicial nominating panels.

That ruling came after the Supreme Court in October had to restrain Scott from making the selections himself before his term expired, which he threatened to do, especially when it appeared Gillum might win.

But the ruling was fraught with legal jeopardy had Gillum won and refused to accept the panel’s recommendations.

But that’s what happened and, as a result, the JNC forwarded its finalists to DeSantis Tuesday with little fanfare after meeting in Orlando to sort through 59 candidates who were each interviewed for a half-hour by the panel over two weekends in Miami and Tampa in early November.

The three Supreme Court seats become vacant on Jan. 8 when Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince must retire in accordance with state law, which requires mandatory retirement for judges at age 70.

Ironically, Florida voters on Nov. 6 approved a constitutional amendment extending judges’ mandatory retirement age to 75, but that new law does not go into effect until July 1, 2019.

The three – Pariente, Lewis, Quince – were all appointed in the 1990s by Gov. Lawton Chiles, Florida’s last Democratic governor, and constitute the bulk of a liberal 4-3 Supreme Court majority, which will no longer exist after DeSantis selects their replacements.

“I appreciate the hard work of the (JNC) in certifying this list of talented and highly qualified individuals,” DeSantis said in a statement, praising Scott for presenting him with “strong judicial appointments” as a legacy benefit of his eight-year administration.

“I look forward to (Scott’s) counsel as I work to evaluate each nominee to ensure that the next three justices appointed to the Florida Supreme Court will respect our Constitution and the rule of law and serve our state with distinction,” he said.

Two of the vacancies can be filled by candidates from anywhere in the state. The third must be filled by someone from the state’s 3rd Appellate District in South Florida – Miami-Dade or Monroe counties.

The JNC’s final list includes seven appellate and two trial judges – six first appointed to the bench by Scott – and two candidates who are not judges.

Among those two non-jurists is Carlos Muñiz, former chief of staff to Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is now President Donald Trump’s appointee as general counsel to the U.S. Department of Education.

Finalists for two at-large seats:

  • Jonathan D. Gerber: Chief judge of the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach. He was appointed by then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009.
  • Jamie Rutland Grosshans: Judge on the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach, appointed by Scott earlier this year.
  • Jeffrey T. Kuntz: Judge on the 4th District Court of Appeal appointed by Scott in 2016.
  • Bruce Kyle: Circuit judge in the 20th Judicial Circuit in Fort Myers and former Republican Florida House representative from 1998 to 2006.
  • Timothy D. Osterhaus: Judge on the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee and former state Solicitor General appointed by Scott in 2013.
  • Samuel J. Salario Jr.: Judge on the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland appointed by Scott in 2014.
  • Anuraag Singhal: Circuit judge in the 17th Judicial Circuit in Fort Lauderdale appointed by Scott in 2011.

Three candidates for 3rd Appellate District seat on Supreme Court:

  • John Daniel Couriel: The other non-judge on the list, he is a former federal prosecutor and now an attorney with the Kobre & Kim law firm in Miami.
  • Barbara Lagoa: Judge on the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2006.
  • Robert J. Luck: Judge on the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami appointed by Scott in 2013.

A version of this article previously appeared on Watchdog.org under the headline, “Panel forwards 11 finalists for three Supreme Court seats to DeSantis.”

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