Heads he wins, tails he wins
The Florida Supreme Court is about to undergo a dramatic overhaul, as mandatory retirement laws force three of the seven justices off the bench. In October, the Florida Supreme Court settled the question of whether Republican Gov. Rick Scott or his about-to-be-elected successor will get to make the appointments. The power, the court ruled, rests with the next governor.
While we don’t yet know who the next governor will be, we do know the nine people who will choose the finalists. That’s because the governor will only be able to make his choices from a list of between nine and 18 names supplied by a judicial nominating commission – a nine-member panel comprising five appointees chosen directly by the governor and four more picked by the governor from lists of nominees made by the Florida Bar.
After eight years in office, Scott has been responsible for naming all nine members of the JNC. Even though Scott doesn’t get to make the actual appointments himself, his successor will make his picks from the list supplied by Scott’s JNC. And the Florida Supreme Court has ruled in the past that a governor has no ability to reject a JNC’s nominations or force it to make new ones; whatever names Scott’s JNC sends along are it.
Here are Florida’s nine Supreme Court gatekeepers.
- Fred Karlinsky: Karlinsky is one of Scott’s most trusted lieutenants on the Supreme Court JNC. He has raised money for the governor and his causes, including co-chairing Scott’s second inauguration. And Scott in return has relied on him to fill important roles; in addition to putting him on the JNC, Scott made Karlinsky one of his picks for the Constitution Revision Commission. An insurance industry lawyer and lobbyist, Karlinsky co-chairs the insurance regulatory and transactions practice for Greenberg Traurig. He presents dozens of clients before the Legislature and governor’s office, including Goldman Sachs, WellCare and FCCI.
- Jesse Panuccio: Once one of Scott’s most important aides, Panuccio did everything from screening the governor’s judicial appointments to running his economic development programs. Panuccio spent five years inside the administration in all, including tenures as general counsel and secretary of the Department of Economic Opportunity. He left in January 2016 – it wasn’t clear whether he would survive a looming confirmation vote in the Florida Senate – but Scott immediately tapped him for the JNC. He’s now serving in the Trump administration as acting associate attorney general of the United States, the No. 3 position in the Justice Department – and putting him next in line to oversee the Mueller probe should Trump fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The Duke and Harvard Law alum is active in the Federalist Society, which advocates for conservative judges.
- Nilda Pedrosa: The chief of staff to Attorney General Pam Bondi, Pedrosa has had a long career in Republican politics. Before joining Bondi’s office in 2013, Pedrosa, of Coral Gables, spent time as U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s chief of staff, a senior policy adviser to former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez and a director of intergovernmental affairs in the U.S. Department of State under President George W. Bush. She was also an assistant dean for development and external affairs at the Florida International University College of Law from 2010-12 and has worked as a political consultant and lobbyist. Scott first named her to the JNC in 2012.
- Heather Stearns: Scott ordered the JNC to convene on Sept. 11 – one week later, he made Stearns his newest selection to the commission. The Tallahassee lobbyist spent seven years in Scott’s administration, holding several low-profile, but important, roles, including as deputy general counsel and chief of staff at the Department of Children & Families. She was one of Scott’s lead lawyers in a battle in which the governor’s office resisted efforts to find and turn over emails and text messages sent by staffers on their personal accounts and devices. In February, she joined Liberty Dental Plan as vice president of government relations. Six months later, the dental plan announced it had won the share of a major Florida Medicaid contract.
- Jason Unger: The chairman of the JNC has been at the center of some of Florida Republicans’ most important legal battles over the past two decades – including representing the Bush-Cheney campaign during the 2000 re-count and the Florida House of Representatives in redistricting litigation. After serving as special counsel to former House Speaker John Thrasher in 2000, Unger joined GrayRobinson, where he is now managing director of the firm’s Tallahassee office. He has a long list of lobbying clients before the Legislature, including Target, the Orlando Magic, JP Morgan and the billboard industry.
- Cynthia Angelos: A prominent Treasure Coast Republican who was once described as the lobbying mentor to former Senate President-turned-lobbyist Ken Pruitt (R-Port St. Lucie), Angelos spent 11 years as a judge on the 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River and Okeechobee counties. Now in private practice, her firm represents businesses in civil ligation, class-action defense and real-estate development, among other areas of practice. She’s also a former president of the Port St. Lucie Chamber of Commerce. She was first appointed by Scott to the Florida Supreme Court JNC in 2014.
- Israel Reyes: Appointed to the 11th Circuit Court in Miami in 2003 by former Gov. Jeb Bush, Reyes stepped down from the bench nearly eight years later in 2011 to go into private practice. His boutique firm in Coral Gables, Reyes Law Firm, handles criminal defense, commercial and civil litigation, and Reyes has represented everyone from Miami’s police union to development firm Related Group. Before becoming a circuit court judge, Reyes spent 30 years climbing the criminal-justice ranks as a police detective, prosecutor and county judge. Scott put him on the JNC in 2012.
- Hala Sandridge: The chair of Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney’s appellate practice, Sandridge is one of the state’s top appellate attorneys for businesses seeking to overturn multimillion-dollar jury verdicts. In 2013, for instance, she helped persuade the Florida’s 1st DCA to overturn a $900-million verdict against the owner of a Gainesville nursing home accused of negligence. Altogether, Sandridge, whose clients have included WCI Communities, Raymond James and Humana, has directly handled hundreds of appeals in both state and federal courts.
- Jeanne Tate: Tate, a Tampa attorney, is one of Florida’s leading experts on adoptions. In 1999, she left a larger law firm to found Jeanne T. Tate law firm to focus exclusively on adoption law. Her firm today has half a dozen attorneys and handles everything from surrogacy to gay adoption. She’s also the founder and president of Heart of Adoptions, a for-profit adoption agency. Tate has argued adoption cases before the Florida Supreme Court and advocated for adoption bills in the Florida Legislature, including a 2012 law signed by Gov. Rick Scott aimed at moving more adoptions to the private sector. Scott named her to the JNC in 2011.
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