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Florida's Supreme Court Challenge

Florida Supreme Court

Knowing that two Florida Supreme Court justices were nearing mandatory retirement in the first quarter of 2009, Arturo Alvarez, a member and former chairman of the court’s Judicial Nominating Commission, suspected the JNC would be busy the rest of this year, scrutinizing potential replacements. But then two more justices announced they were retiring, leaving the JNC with the rare task of screening applicants for four openings.

Alvarez says the process is a little like being on a jury. Once the potential justices have submitted the necessary paperwork, the commission’s nine members divvy up the names and spend weeks investigating their assigned candidates. Then, committee members share their findings and debate which ones they should recommend to the governor, who makes the final decision. Alvarez, a Miami attorney who has served on JNC committees since 1994, says the process can’t be rushed — even now with so many seats to fill so fast. “You have to make sure,” he says. “Your integrity goes into the process.”

Alvarez knows, though, that the state’s judicial system is depending on the JNC to do its work quickly. The Florida Constitution requires a quorum of at least five justices to hear a case and four to deliver a majority opinion. George LeMieux, Gov. Charlie Crist’s former chief of staff and current chairman of the statewide law firm Gunster Yoakley, says there are several cases that many court observers are hoping will be decided before the personnel changes start happening.

Who’s on the JNC

» Robert S. Hackleman, Chairman, Fort Lauderdale
» Arturo Alvarez, Miami
» Howard Coker, Jacksonville
» Candace Duff, Miami
» Katherine W. Ezell, Miami
» Martin L. Garcia, Tampa
» Andrew E. Grigsby, Miami
» Kathleen Shanahan, Tampa
» Jason Unger, Tallahassee

One involves the legality of a state law that allows people who signed a petition to ask at a later date that their name be removed from the list. LeMieux says the case is important because it could help determine if the Hometown Democracy proposal requiring local residents to approve comp-plan changes ever makes it to statewide ballot. Another is a major false light libel case filed against the Pensacola News Journal. “There are a lot of folks who are anxiously looking at the court to see how these decisions are going to come out,” LeMieux says. “You could have decisions without a full court, but I think it’s in the community’s best interest that these decisions come down as quickly as possible.”

Sandy D’Alemberte, an attorney and a Florida State University law professor, says the Florida Supreme Court has faced multiple openings before. Three justices resigned amid scandal in 1975, for example, and a fourth resigned a year earlier, but D’Alemberte says even then the court’s work went on without disruption. “My guess is that the departing justices will be careful to tidy up their casework before they leave and that relatively few decisions will be held up,” he says.

How well the process goes will largely depend on how many people apply. The bigger the list, the more time the JNC will need to do its research. John “Jay” White, president of the Florida Bar, expects a “minimum” of disruption — good news given the importance of the JNC’s work: “When you have four out of seven justices being appointed, they will certainly have the ability to shape the future of the state.”