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Florida governor’s push to name justices challenged in court

September 20, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s bid to replace three justices on the state Supreme Court before he leaves office drew a fresh legal challenge on Thursday.

Two advocacy groups asked the state Supreme Court to block a statewide nominating commission from coming up with a list of replacement candidates for the three justices who are leaving early next year due to age restrictions.

The three justices who are departing from the seven-member court are often part of a majority that has ruled against Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Scott last week asked the nominating panel to come up with a list of replacements for Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince in the next 60 days. He said that this would ensure that the court would avoid any vacancies once the justices step down. Scott also promised to work with whoever is elected to replace him in November to reach an agreement on who to pick. Outgoing Gov. Lawton Chiles and incoming Gov. Jeb Bush reached such an agreement in 1998.

But the lawsuit from the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida maintains that Scott does not have the power to make the appointments ahead of when the positions will be vacant. Instead the lawsuit argues the decision must be left to his successor. Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum are the main candidates in the November election.

Lawyers for the groups maintain that the court must step in now “to avoid a potential constitutional crisis.”

A spokesman for Scott blasted the lawsuit.

“It’s disappointing that these partisan groups filed a politically-motivated lawsuit that would create three prolonged vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court, contrary to all historical practice,” said John Tupps.

Age limits are forcing the three justices to retire on the day Scott is scheduled to leave the governor’s office. The state constitution requires judges to step down at 70 unless their terms are nearly completed.

Scott had previously said he planned to name the three new justices the morning of his departure. The two groups filed a petition with the court last year in an effort to block the move. But the Supreme Court said it could not rule, however, on something that hasn’t happened yet.

Still the litigation led to a back-and-forth among lawyers and justices about exactly when the governor’s term ends and when the terms of the justices end. One argument is that the governor’s term ends at midnight before the new governor is inaugurated into office, while the justices remain in office until the end of the following day.

Gillum this week said that the constitution does not leave the decision up to Scott.

“That is the first decision that will be on the desk of the next governor,” Gillum said.

DeSantis, a former Congressman who has worked as an attorney, said during a Republican primary debate this summer he intended to pick the three new justices if he were elected.

Scott’s push to name justices could also be complicated by his run for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. If he wins, Scott could be forced to step down as governor a few days before his term as governor ends. That’s because Congress — at least for now — is scheduled to start its 2019 term on Jan. 3 — before a new governor is sworn into office on Jan. 8.

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