A national group that promotes accountability, transparency and ethics in government is accusing two Florida Supreme Court justices of destroying “public faith in the courts” and is asking that they recuse themselves in a case that could have a huge impact on the political makeup of the Court for decades.
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) is critical of the actions of Justices Jorge Labarga and Barbara Pariente following a hearing two weeks ago on whether Gov. Rick Scott or his successor has the right to appoint three new justices on Scott’s final day in office, which is January 8.
The case was brought by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause.
The case will have a significant impact on the political makeup of the Court, which currently has a 4-3 liberal majority.
“Both Justice Labarga and Justice Pariente have exhibited behavior that should disqualify them from hearing the case brought by politically motivated organizations who want to prevent the governor from filling vacancies on the Florida State Supreme Court,” said Kendra Arnold, the executive director of FACT.
The “behavior” Arnold refers to came at the end of the hearing.
Labarga and Pariente were caught on camera by The Florida Channel, the state’s public television channel, looking at a piece of paper. While the audio is garbled, Labarga is heard saying “Panuccio.” Pariente responds by saying “crazy.” Labarga is later heard saying “Izzy Reyes is on there, he’ll listen to me.”
The justices were apparently referring to a piece of paper containing the names of Judicial Nominating Commission members. Israel Reyes and Jesse Panuccio are on the nine-member panel that submits nominees to the governor when there is a vacancy on the court.
Scott’s general counsel, Daniel Nordby, has requested copies of the paper Labarga and Pariente were referring to, as well as the videotape. Nordby, who also serves on the JNC, presented Scott’s case in oral arguments that day.
Jason Unger, chairman of the JNC, heard the incident live and requested the records last week. Unger told the Orlando Sentinel that he believes the discussion of the two justices because the makeup of the JNC has nothing to do with case before the Court.
“It’s the timing of it and the relevance of it that has me perplexed,” Unger said. “To take that much interest in the nomination process … it certainly gives the impression and the indication the (justices) have an interest in the process of who is nominating people to the Florida Supreme Court.”
“Moreover, Justice Pariente has previously expressed her opinion that she did not want the governor to make judicial appointments – the very issue in the case before the court,” Arnold added. “Both justices should immediately recuse themselves from this case as they have demonstrated a bias against the governor.”
If Labarga and Pariente, two of the more liberal justices, recuse themselves then the conservative members of the Court would have a 3-2 edge and could give Scott the ability to make appointments on his final day in office that could influence the Court for years to come.
All of the records requested by Scott’s attorneys have reportedly been turned over to the Governor’s Office.