Editorial: Deny Rick Scott’s power grab on Florida’s high court

Gov. Rick Scott wants to appoint three new Florida Supreme Court justices literally on his way out of office.

That makes little sense. And the high court should tell him no.

Actually, all the Supreme Court has to do is repeat itself. A decade ago, justices issued an advisory opinion saying a governor shouldn’t make such appointments while walking out the door.

Voters have overwhelmingly said the same thing. In 2014, a solid majority rejected a Republican-sponsored ballot initiative that would have given outgoing governors the power to appoint “prospective vacancies” to the Supreme Court or district courts of appeal.

Let’s be clear. For Scott, whose last day in office will be Jan. 8, 2019, this opportunity to flout the will of the voters is nothing more than a power grab. Actually, this could be the power grab to end all power grabs, as the last bastion of true partisan independence in state government would certainly be less so.

Three justices’ terms will end the same day that Scott leaves the Governor’s Mansion: Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, all liberals on the other end of the political spectrum from Scott. Scott said late last year when he replaced liberal former justice, James E.C. Perry, with the more conservative Alan Lawson, that he intends to name successors for those three on the same day that his successor is sworn in.

There’s a technical problem, however. As the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause argue in a June 14 petition, the justices serve “until the last second of the evening of Jan. 8, 2019.” Scott will have been stepped down earlier in the day.

READ: The League of Woman Voters, Common Cause petition to the Florida Supreme Court

That’s not the only problem. As his previous judicial appointments indicate, Scott rejects the value of diversity on the bench. And he has a track record of appointing political cronies — no matter their questionable qualifications.

Take Carlos Beruff. The real estate developer, with a reputation for boorish behavior, has a long history of stridently defying convention — and occasionally, ethics — to push his views, even as he bought influence through political contributions. Yet Scott put his longtime supporter in charge of the crucial Constitutional Revision Commission.

Yes, it is true, as supporters claim, that an incoming governor would need time to pick nominees, meaning a risk that the court could be missing up to three justices for weeks or months. But the court can appoint temporary replacements.

Again, this is about power and the state GOP leadership’s decade-long frustration with the high court’s more liberal majority.

From first shutting down then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s highly touted school voucher plan as unconstitutional to last fall’s explosive pair of rulings throwing out the state’s existing death penalty sentencing law, the courts have stymied GOP legislative efforts that have sought to push constitutional boundaries.

RELATED EDITORIAL: GOP efforts to rein in courts tramples on ‘separation of powers’

Lawmakers have pushed back with several attempts to dilute the justices’ influence. Perhaps the most inane being a measure offered up by a state senator proposing a constitutional amendment to add eight members to the seven-member court — but withdrew his bill when it became public.

But the long-simmering dispute over the future makeup of the state’s high court has finally reached a boiling point.

The voting rights groups have asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether Scott has the power to make those three appointments. The high court has asked Scott to respond to the groups’ petition.

The groups are correct that the conflict needs to be sorted out well before a potential constitutional crisis engulfs the judiciary.

“Although the general election is over a year away, there is simply not time for this case to work its way through the circuit court to the district court and back to this (Supreme) Court for final resolution,” the petition says. “The importance of deciding this issue before Governor Scott attempts to make the subject appointments cannot be overstated.”

We agree that “a newly elected governor is not only more accountable [for appointments], but also better represents the will of the people who just voted than someone elected four years ago.”

The will of the voters, as shown in the defeat of the 2014 amendment, should hold sway here.

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