FloridaLocalPolitics

Weekly Roundup: High stakes for high courts

News-Service-Florida-Logo-68x25BY | Dara Kam
The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Elected officials, political pundits and armchair quarterbacks are fanning the flames of a firestorm over President Donald Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, a federal judge who’s been accused of sexual assault at a drunken high-school bash more than three decades ago.

Kavanaugh has vehemently denied the accusations lodged recently by Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist at Palo Alto University. If, when and how Ford will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee has turned into a partisan skirmish of epic proportions. Democrats hope to postpone Kavanaugh’s confirmation until after the November elections, in the hope that they might retake a majority in the Senate and ultimately put the kibosh on Trump’s selection.

Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who leaves office in January and is trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, came out this week with a statement about the Kavanaugh nomination that was ostensibly aimed at keeping everybody happy.

The Republican candidate defended “the truth” — which he said “is not partisan” and “is more important than politics” — and called Ford’s accusations “serious.” At the same time, Scott maintained that Kavanaugh “deserves to have a chance to clear his name.”

A frustrated Nelson, meanwhile, said he’s tried five times to meet with Kavanaugh, to no avail.

Meanwhile, all but two of Florida’s Republican state House members chimed in on the U.S. Supreme Court nomination this week.

Citing a “host of reasons” to support Kavanaugh, the GOP lawmakers used a letter to U.S. Senate leaders to urge Nelson to “transcend party politics” and “look at the nominee … as his own man.”

The missive, dated Wednesday, makes no mention of Ford or her allegations, which first surfaced more than a week ago.

MAYBE ALEXANDER HAIG WILL DECIDE

The clash about whether Kavanaugh will make it onto the nation’s high court is mirrored in some respects by a legal battle brewing in the Sunshine State over who will appoint replacements for three Florida Supreme Court justices who will be forced to retire in January. The battle is over whether Scott, his successor, or a combination of the two, will make the appointments.

In a lawsuit filed last year that argued Scott should not have the appointment power, the Florida Supreme Court said the issue wasn’t “ripe” for a decision. But that’s changed now that Scott has started the process to choose replacements for retiring justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause filed a renewed lawsuit Thursday contending again that Scott shouldn’t have the power. The lawsuit came after Scott directed the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission to begin the process of receiving and reviewing applications.

Saying that Scott “has now acted on his stated intention” to appoint the three justices and has set the process in motion, the groups asked the high court for a “writ of quo warranto,” which is used to determine whether a state officer or agency has improperly exercised power.

The outcome of the case could shape the makeup of the Supreme Court for years, if not decades. Pariente, Lewis and Quince are part of a liberal bloc, which now holds a slim 4-3 majority, that has thwarted Scott and the Republican-dominated Legislature on numerous occasions since the governor took office in 2011.

Scott and the three longtime justices will all leave office in January, which has created the legal debate about which governor will have the appointment power.

In announcing that Scott had initiated the nominating process on Sept. 11, his office said Scott would invite the governor-elect to interview the court nominees after the Nov. 6 general election. The governor’s office pointed to an “expectation” that Scott and his successor would be able to agree on appointments.

If that happens, it would follow the lead of outgoing Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and Republican Gov.-elect Jeb Bush in late 1998 agreeing to appoint Quince to the Supreme Court.

But the chances of reaching agreement could hinge heavily on the outcome of the gubernatorial election between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis. Gillum is running as a progressive Democrat and, if elected, might have a hard time reaching agreement with the conservative Scott. The new governor will take office Jan. 8.

“In our understanding of the Constitution, the next governor will appoint the next three Supreme Court justices,” Gillum’s campaign said in a statement after Scott initiated the Judicial Nominating Commission proceedings.

One of the key arguments in the case surrounds exactly when the terms of Scott and the justices end.

The League of Women Voters and Common Cause maintain that the judicial vacancies do not occur until after the outgoing justices’ terms expire at the end of the day on Tuesday, Jan. 8. That is also the day Scott’s successor will take office.

Even if the justices’ terms run out earlier in the day, Scott still doesn’t have the authority to appoint the judicial replacements, John Mills, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, argued last year. That would be up to the new governor, who will almost certainly be sworn in immediately after midnight on inauguration day, the plaintiffs argued, pointing to what happened when the last three governors assumed office.

In a statement issued in response to Thursday’s lawsuit, Scott reiterated he wants to work with the incoming governor to fill the appointments.

“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. The governor is following precedent set by Governor Chiles and has said in good faith that his expectation is that he and the governor-elect will agree on the selection of three new justices,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said in an email.

GILLUM, DESANTIS SPLIT ON SCHOOLS

While the battle about the Supreme Court appointments heated up this week, Gillum and DeSantis also launched plans that show they are far apart on how to improve Florida schools.

Gillum is floating a proposal that would provide a minimum $50,000 starting salary for teachers by increasing the state corporate-income tax by $1 billion.

DeSantis, meanwhile, released a plan that includes requiring 80 percent of school funding to be spent in classrooms and not on administration. He said the plan could help boost teacher pay.

Republicans have criticized Gillum’s proposal to increase the corporate-income tax rate from 5.5 percent to 7.75 percent to raise $1 billion for schools.

Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor, said only the largest corporations pay the tax because of exemptions. He estimates his proposal would impact about 3 percent of the companies doing business in the state. The tax increase would be offset by more than $6 billion in reduced taxes the corporations are paying because of the recent cut in the federal corporate tax, according to Gillum.

“I will not allow them to get away with miss-describing what it is that we are proposing. We are simply saying that we’ve got to invest in our next generation,” Gillum said at a press conference Tuesday.

Meanwhile, DeSantis, a former congressman from Ponte Vedra Beach, is touting the plan to require spending 80 percent of education funding in classrooms. His campaign policy statement said it would “cut bureaucratic waste and administrative inefficiency and ensure that money is being spent where it matters most.”

After touring the Okaloosa STEMM Academy in Valparaiso on Tuesday, DeSantis said his plan could boost pay for teachers.

“As we’re moving away from bureaucracy and putting more of the percentage of money we spend into the classroom, to me, the primary beneficiary is going to be the teachers,” he told reporters.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause filed a lawsuit seeking to block an attempt by Gov. Rick Scott to appoint replacements for three justices whose terms will end as the governor’s tenure comes to a close in January.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I want to make it very clear. The death of U.S. citizens is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It is a human tragedy.” State Rep. Robert Asencio, a Miami Democrat, speaking to reporters a year after Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in tatters.


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