By Noreen Marcus, Florida Bulldog.org
The group that’s supposed to independently screen candidates for an opening on Florida’s highest court has had a couple glitches along the way.
First of all, the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) had to deal with an enthusiasm gap. Only two judges and one practicing attorney stepped forward in bids to replace Justice Ricky Polston, who resigned effective March 31. The last opening drew 17 applicants.
The falloff in applications reflects a general perception that the fix is in – for obsequious conservatives only. The power of “one set of political views … makes application by any lawyer with a different philosophy seem futile and even dangerous for future representation of clients,” Supreme Court historian Neil Skene has said.
JNC chair Fred Karlinsky responded – after checking with Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office – by extending the deadline two weeks to April 17.
Now, the JNC has a beefed-up roster of 15 applicants. Still there’s the nagging question of why a 16th applicant, Tampa lawyer Belinda Noah, was left off the May 3 interview schedule. Since the Florida Bar didn’t post a complete list of applicants, her absence might have slipped beneath the radar.
But Noah, one of the first three to apply, couldn’t help but notice it. She called Karlinsky.
His explanation left her perplexed and disappointed, Noah said when Florida Bulldog called her. “I just really wanted to serve the people, to base my decisions on the law and the Constitution,” she said.
Karlinsky cited the rule that lawyers must have at least 10 years of experience before they’re eligible for a Supreme Court nomination. Because Noah, a Florida Bar member for 40 years, was suspended for a month in 2014, she isn’t entitled to an interview, Karlinsky told her.
NOAH INTERVIEWED IN 2020
“They said that was a break in my admission to the Bar, in my service, so that meant I hadn’t been a member for the requisite 10 years,” Noah recalled.
She said the suspension, which was punishment for mishandling a bankruptcy case, was about an attempt to help a friend that backfired. The client failed to pay court costs, according to Noah.
Despite her record, the JNC interviewed Noah in January 2020 for one of two Supreme Court openings created when President Donald Trump named Justices Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa to the federal appeals court in Atlanta. Ultimately, Justices John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans took those seats.
A professional misstep alone doesn’t preclude a Supreme Court appointment, at least not in theory. The Florida Constitution sets out residency and voter requirements and the 10-year rule. That’s all.
So if Noah’s suspension didn’t prevent her from interviewing in 2020, why is it a problem now?
Karlinsky answered the question by sending Florida Bulldog an appellate court ruling from August 2020, seven months after the Noah interview. The First District Court of Appeal held that Gainesville Democrat Beverly McCallum was ineligible to run for state attorney because she’d been suspended for 15 days in 2019, interrupting her required five years of practice.
The lawyer who won that case for Republican state attorney candidate Brian Kramer was Daniel Nordby, Karlinsky’s predecessor as JNC chair in 2020.
JNC SEEN AS DESANTIS ‘T00L’
Last Friday Noah announced she’d withdrawn her application. She said she realized that trying for an appointment was futile.
For the 15 applicants who will have 20-minute interviews with the JNC the question is: Will it matter?
Critics say the nomination process is a sham because DeSantis pre-selects judges. They say the JNC goes through the motions of talking to all the applicants before giving him a short list of three to six names; one of them is the governor’s designated choice.
“The JNC has come to be perceived as a tool of the governor,” said state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere. She sued DeSantis twice over his judicial appointments and prevailed once.
In 2020 Thompson prevented DeSantis from promoting then-Palm Beach Circuit Judge Renatha Francis to the Supreme Court because Francis hadn’t reached 10 years as a licensed attorney — a violation of the same rule Karlinsky used to deny Noah an interview.
DeSantis’s second Francis appointment in 2022 was unopposed. When he replaces Polston, he’ll have handpicked five of the court’s seven members.
FEDERALIST VETTING MACHINE
DeSantis is guided in his choice of judges by a whole other vetting system that runs parallel to the official JNC one. He consults the Federalist Society, the conservative powerbroker, through his chief of staff James Uthmeier, the administration’s point person for shaping the judiciary.
As DeSantis wages culture wars in his run-up to a presidential campaign, he’s made abortion one of his signature issues. Late in the evening of April 13, he quietly signed into law a six-week abortion ban that’s among the nation’s toughest constraints on reproductive health care.
The governor’s evident litmus test for judges is abortion opposition. By this standard two of the newer Supreme Court applicants emerge as frontrunners for the Polston seat. They join an earlier applicant, Chief Judge Meredith Sasso of the Sixth District Court of Appeal (DCA).
One is John Stargel, a judge on the Sixth DCA and former Republican legislator. His wife, state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, introduced the 2022 law that criminalized abortion in Florida after the 15th week of pregnancy.
John Stargel stands out also because of his connection to Jared Smith, the other candidate with strong anti-abortion credibility.
STARGEL, SMITH AND ABORTION
Last year when he was a trial judge in Tampa, Smith made national news by denying a teenager an abortion and blaming her grades. A panel of the Second DCA voted 2-1 to reverse his decision; Stargel was the dissenter who supported Smith’s ruling.
Smith went on to lose his reelection race to attorney Nancy Jacobs by more than 7,000 votes. But instead of stepping down, he stepped up when DeSantis tapped him for the new Sixth DCA in Lakeland, where he works with Stargel and Sasso.
“Smith got lots of bad press off that abortion ruling but it caught the governor’s eye in a very favorable way,” said a lawyer who follows this sensitive topic closely and spoke on condition of anonymity. “DeSantis only cares about the will of the voters if it coincides with his will.”
Thompson wouldn’t be surprised if DeSantis transforms Judge Smith of the Sixth DCA into Justice Smith of the Florida Supreme Court.
“Governor DeSantis is stacking the Supreme Court with right-wing ideologues who share his beliefs and viewpoints,” she said. “This has done tremendous damage to the independence of the judiciary.”