TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - The battle over the future makeup of the Florida Supreme Court began in earnest Wednesday, as a pair of voting-rights groups asked justices to determine whether Gov. Rick Scott has the power to reshape the court.
A petition filed by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause called on the court to clear up a simmering dispute about who has the right to name the successors to three justices whose terms will end the same day that Scott leaves the governor's mansion.
The three outgoing members of the court --- justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince --- are part of the court's more-liberal majority and have been an annoyance to Republicans for years. Scott has already replaced one liberal former justice, James E.C. Perry, with the more-conservative Alan Lawson.
Scott, who is term-limited, has already indicated that he has the right to appoint the justices' replacements, because he will still essentially be governor for part of Jan. 8, 2019, the day when their terms end. But many legal observers have questioned that assertion, saying previous Supreme Court decisions and the wording of the Constitution suggest otherwise.
In their filing with the court, the voting-rights groups argue that the conflict needs to be sorted out well before a potential constitutional crisis engulfs the judiciary. Pariente, Lewis and Quince will have to leave the court at the end of their current terms because of a mandatory retirement age.
"Although the general election is over a year away, there is simply not time for this case to work its way through the circuit court to the district court and back to this (Supreme) Court for final resolution," the petition says. "The importance of deciding this issue before Governor Scott attempts to make the subject appointments cannot be overstated."
Under the Constitution, the new governor comes into office on Jan. 8, 2019, the same time the terms expire. But governors often are not inaugurated until around noon, a window that could allow Scott to name new justices in the interim.
To back up their case, the voting-rights groups point to voters' decision in 2014 to reject a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given the winner of that year's gubernatorial race --- which was Scott --- the clear right to appoint the justices. The proposal, which supporters said would clarify the issue, fell well short of the 60 percent threshold needed to be added to the Florida Constitution.
"Although there may be many reasons voters rejected the amendment, there can be no doubt one reason was that a newly-elected governor is not only more accountable, but also better represents the will of the people who just voted than someone elected four years ago," an attorney for the groups wrote.
The battle has been brewing for months. Scott laid down a marker when he appointed Lawson to the court in December.
"I will appoint three more justices on the morning I finish my term," he said then.
An earlier potential conflict over whether an outgoing or incoming governor has the power to appoint a new justice was defused in 1998. Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, who like Scott was term-limited, and Gov.-elect Jeb Bush agreed to jointly name Quince to the court.
Information provided by The News Service of Florida.