The appointment of a new judge to the 4th District Court of Appeal has sparked a political firestorm that reaches all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.
Hours after Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday appointed Alan O. Forst to the West Palm Beach-based appellate court, a group formed to keep politics out of the judicial system blasted the Palm City labor lawyer as unqualified. Further, the group Democracy at Stake questioned whether Forst’s conservative credentials, rather than his legal acumen, spurred the Republican governor to hand him the powerful post.
By Friday, however, the focus had turned from Forst, chairman of the quasi-judicial Reemployment Assistance Appeals Commission, to Florida Supreme Court Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince.
After surviving the most vicious and costly merit retention elections in state history, both gave leftover campaign cash to the group that is criticizing Forst’s appointment. Quince in December gave Democracy at Stake $5,922, according to campaign finance reports. Pariente, who once practiced in West Palm Beach and still lives here, gave it $23,000.
Jesse Phillips, president of Restore Justice, a tea party-linked group that worked to defeat the two justices and their colleague R. Fred Lewis in November, said Democracy at Stake is well within its right to criticize Forst’s appointment. But he questioned whether two Supreme Court justices should be funding its activity.
“It just seems inappropriate to have their efforts funded by the justices’ campaigns,” Phillips said. “They are funneling money to groups lobbying the appointment process of lower courts whose decisions they will review.”
Pariente said she was not aware Sandy D’Alemberte, a former state legislator, law school dean and one of the state’s most prominent attorneys, had issued a press release on behalf of Democracy at Stake criticizing Forst’s selection. Forst will replace her husband, Fred Hazouri, who is retiring.
She said she gave leftover campaign money to the group and others that are studying the merit retention system and trying to figure out how to improve it or increase public understanding of it. She also gave $7,500 to the Florida Law Related Education Association and $2,500 to the National Center for State Courts. Quince also gave excess money to those groups. Lewis gave $3,837 to an association that teaches youth about the justice system.
Had it been her money, Pariente said she might have given it to the Legal Aid Society or, as a breast cancer survivor, a group that researches possible cures. However, because it was campaign money, she felt it was important to use it to address the system that she discovered this fall is misunderstood by many voters.
By removing appellate judges from the rough-and-tumble world of politics, proponents claim it allows judges to make sound decisions, even if they are unpopular. Instead of facing opponents, every six years high court and appeals judges are subject to up-or-down votes.
Pariente said her concern has never been about the system used to fill judicial vacancies. Once the local Judicial Nominating Commission selected those it believed were the most qualified and sent the names to Scott, “The governor has the absolute power to decide who to appoint.” Further, she said, she welcomes Forst to the bench. “I am not involved in any way in criticizing Alan Forst.”
The same can’t be said for members of Democracy at Stake, however. In the statement, D’Alemberte said: “When you have a person appointed to the court who has never tried a case to verdict and without any substantial appellate experience, it certainly makes you question whether the Judicial Nominating Commission is making nominations based on political acceptability rather than competence.”
Headed by Alex Villalobos, a former Republican state senator from Miami, the group is nonpartisan and doesn’t push for particular candidates, said spokeswoman Lisa Hall. It simply wants appeals court judges to represent the best legal minds in the state. The conservative litmus test it appears Scott established limits the pool, she said.
She pointed out that in his application Forst highlighted what he called his “Conservative Credentials.” He said he was a College Republican and volunteered for the Bush-Dole presidential campaign. He noted that in 1981 he worked for a “pro-Reagan PAC and Reagan-Bush Inaugural Committee.” He emphasized his long association with the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
West Palm Beach attorney Louis Silber, chairman of the committee that nominated Forst along with four Palm Beach County circuit court judges and one from Martin County, said politics was not a factor in the selection process.
Forst declined comment, saying only that he was “honored” by the appointment. On his application, the 54-year-old, who holds an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and a law degree from Catholic University, described himself as multifaceted. “I may read Gordon Wood books and attend a panel on Federalism one week and then attend an alternative rock music festival and watch a ‘South Park’ marathon that weekend.”
But the controversy might not be over. Another 4th DCA judge, Mark Polen, is retiring. Applications for those interested in replacing him are due April 10.