The Florida Supreme Court is being asked to decide an issue that could affect the makeup of the state’s highest court for years to come.
The terms of three of the court’s current justices are set to end January 8, the same day Rick Scott will end his two terms as governor.
The question the court is being asked to answer is: whose responsibility will it be to appoint their replacements? Will it be up to Scott or the person who succeeds him as governor?
Scott contends he has the authority since he will be governor for at least part of January 8. But, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause filed a petition with the court on Wednesday questioning the governor’s authority and asking for an opinion from the Florida Supreme Court itself.
The reason the issue is so significant is that the three outgoing members–Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince— represent a large part of the court’s more liberal majority. The three are required to leave their seats on the court because they have reached mandatory retirement age.
Scott has already appointed a more conservative justice, Alan Lawson, to succeed a more liberal-leaning justice, James E.C. Perry. The governor has vowed to appoint three new justices to the court on his last morning in office.
In their petition, the voting-rights groups claim the three outgoing justices won’t give up their seats until the end of the day on January 8, hours after Scott leaves office.
“The Florida Constitution prohibits a governor from making a prospective appointment of an appellate judge to an existing seat before that seat becomes vacant. Thus, the controlling issue is whether Governor Scott will be in office at the time the judicial offices become vacant.”
The groups also point to a constitutional amendment that appeared on the 2014 ballot that would have given the winner of that year’s governor’s race the authority to appoint the next three justices. The proposal failed to get the mandatory 60 percent of the votes to pass.
“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,” according to the petition.
A similar controversy was settled in 1998 when a vacancy on the court caused some conflict between outgoing Gov. Lawton Chiles and Governor-elect Jeb Bush. The two agreed to make a joint selection and chose current Justice Quince.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause say the reason they took their case directly to the state Supreme Court, as opposed to filing in circuit court, is timing.
“The importance of deciding this issue before Governor Scott attempts to make the subject appointments cannot be overstated,” the petition states. The groups say there is simply not enough time to allow the case to work its way through the regular legal system.