Editorial: Scott decisions to reassign cases are ‘executive overreach’

Gov. Rick Scott has decided to step up his assault on Aramis Ayala, the state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties who had the audacity to refuse to seek the death penalty for an accused cop killer — or other defendants accused of capital crimes.

After removing her last month from the prosecution of the accused, Markeith Loyd, Scott on Monday — acting “in the interest of justice” — reassigned 21 additional first-degree murder cases to an outspoken death-penalty proponent, Brad King, the Ocala-based state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit.

These executive orders disrespect the sanctity of both the electoral and judicial processes. And Scott should reverse them immediately.

It’s hard to see this as anything but a politically motivated power grab by a governor whose disdain for the traditional checks and balances of government can be palpable — especially when it comes to the judiciary.

Ayala, Florida’s first black elected state attorney, announced last month that she would not seek death for Loyd — accused in the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and the execution-style killing of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton.

Scott’s decision to remove her from the case was swift, coming within hours of her announcement. Nearly as swift was reaction from Republican lawmakers, calling for the governor to remove Ayala from office and reducing her office’s funding. Just Tuesday morning, a group of Central Florida Republicans held a news conference again calling for her removal.

To be sure, Florida lawmakers are still a bit sore about being forced — twice — to pass a bill requiring a unanimous jury vote for the death penalty. Both the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts had struck down the state’s capital punishment system as unconstitutional, making more than half the state’s 400 death row inmates eligible for new sentencing. Likely, many GOP lawmakers saw Ayala’s decision as another slap in the face.

But that’s their problem. They should understand that prosecutors have broad discretionary power. That’s why every first-degree murder case is not a death penalty case. Aggravating circumstance also must be present.

We don’t necessarily agree with Ayala’s position rejecting the death penalty in all cases. But we respect her authority, vested by the voters of the 9th Circuit, to do so. Those same voters — who elected her by a double-digit margin — can remove her from office if she does not represent their views about criminal justice.

That’s the point. The governor would have us believe this is about the death penalty. It’s not. This is about a chief executive’s unprecedented overreach based on a political philosophy.

The law Scott cites, which allows a governor to remove prosecutors from cases if the prosecutors are unfit or if there is a conflict of interest, is also a stretch.

In a statement Monday, Scott said the victims’ families “deserve a state attorney who will take the time to review every individual fact and circumstance before making such an impactful decision.”

They also deserve a state attorney of their own choosing. They deserve a state attorney who’s not fearful of doing what’s best for their constituents by making a politically unpopular decision. And one not subject to knee-jerk reactions.

Ayala cited numerous problems with the death penalty as the basis for her decision, which she said she reached after “extensive and painstaking thought and consideration.”

Nearly 150 law professors, former prosecutors and judges wrote a letter of protest to Scott. They kept it simple. “Florida’s entire criminal justice system is premised on the independence of prosecutors,” they wrote. Ayala “is solely empowered to make prosecutorial decisions for her circuit.”

If the governor is truly genuine about his passion for “justice,” he needs to step back from this dangerously slippery slope.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Opinion

Letters: Control of time not so cut and dried

Control of time not so cut and dried The Florida Legislature recently passed a bill to keep daylight saving time all year. Sen. Marco Rubio has submitted two bills to Congress on the subject: One bill to keep daylight saving time all year for the entire country, the second to allow Florida to remain on DST even if the rest of the county does not. The...
Editorial cartoon
Editorial cartoon

POINT OF VIEW: America is getting older, and so are its drivers

The U.S. population will exceed 400 million by 2060, according to Census Bureau projections released this month. That includes an increase in the older population that will have major implications for transportation. While the size of each age group is expected to grow, the teenage population will rise only 8 percent as the group over 65 nearly doubles...
Letters: Government, insurers at root of opioid issue

Government, insurers at root of opioid issue Re the opioid problem: The government and the insurance companies are responsible. They pay only for drugs or surgeries. They will not cover any alternative measures. In my 30s, I had a sports injury to my spine. After years of pain, the only hope I had was the painkillers. They worked for a time but I had...
POINT OF VIEW: Everyone can support common-sense insurance reforms

In a recent letter published in The Palm Beach Post, a representative of the insurance industry incorrectly claims that public adjusters have been lobbying against Assignment of Benefits (AOB) reform — along with lobbyists for trial lawyers and water restoration companies. This statement is wrong on so many levels that it demands a response....
More Stories