By Noreen Marcus,FloridaBulldog.org
The frontrunner to replace Florida Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston runs the new Sixth District Court of Appeal and has strong family ties to the Federalist Society and state government, plus a prominent office mate: Justice Charles Canady.
Choosing Chief Judge Meredith Sasso would give Gov. Ron DeSantis the right to brag about making history by placing a third woman on the same Supreme Court panel.
He already promoted Justices Jamie Grosshans and Renatha Francis.
Sasso and Grosshans are friends, as Sasso noted in remarks during Grosshans’ November 2021 investiture at the Supreme Court in Tallahassee.
“She believes that everybody who comes into this courtroom, everybody who goes into any courtroom, should get equal justice under the law and fair treatment, not because no one is special as some people say, but because everyone is special. Everyone is made in the image of their Creator,” Sasso said, according to a report of the event on the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society website.
Of course, DeSantis may not emphasize he’s putting another woman on the high court so he won’t be mistaken for a “woke” feminist. Former Supreme Court chief justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince recently called out the court and governor for breaking with a longstanding tradition of supporting diversity.
DeSantis will have selected five of the court’s seven members when he picks a successor to Polston. Polston resigned effective March 31 and went to work as general counsel for the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
Only three lawyers applied for the position Polston held as of the original Monday deadline, said Fred Karlinsky, chair of the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. Karlinsky is also a shareholder and global co-chair of Greenberg Traurig’s insurance regulatory and transactions practice group, and regional finance chairman for the Republican Party of Florida
CALLING ALL CANDIDATES
When Alan Lawson retired from the court last year, 17 lawyers applied for the opening. It went to Francis, DeSantis’s selection in 2020, when he failed to seat her, and again in 2022, when he succeeded.
Tuesday afternoon, after what Karlinsky described as “correspondence with the Governor’s office,” he extended the application deadline by two weeks to April 17. Karlinsky did not respond to a Florida Bulldog email asking why the deadline was pushed back.
Judicial nominating commissions are supposed to screen applicants independently and send short lists to the governor for final selections. Critics say the system is a sham because DeSantis pre-selects judges and rigs the process so they appear to be vetted, but aren’t.
Historian Neil Skene suggested the falloff in applications reflects the court’s reputation.
“I think people have come to view the Florida Supreme Court much as we now view the U.S. Supreme Court – as a court dominated by one collection of political positions that are the major influence on the outcome of a case,” he said.
“The domination of the court of one set of political views, and the governor’s domination of the nominating process and clear intention of maintaining a Federalist Society viewpoint on the court, make application by any lawyer with different philosophies seem futile and even dangerous for future representation of clients in court,” Skene said.
APPLICANT WAS DISCIPLINED
In addition to Sasso, the applicants for the seat held by Polston are Tampa lawyer Belinda Noah, a perennial political candidate with a disciplinary suspension in her record, and Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Thomas Palermo. For context, Sasso directs a court that reviews the work of trial judges like Palermo.
In 2014 the Supreme Court signed off on Florida Bar charges against Noah and suspended her for 30 days for failing to adequately represent a client in a bankruptcy case. A month’s suspension isn’t lengthy, but it requires completely shutting down and then reopening a law practice.
Noah describes herself in her LinkedIn profile as “an international attorney, film producer, law professor, and global business executive with 20+ years of international law, teaching and producing experience, among other endeavors.”
Most recently, Noah mounted a write-in campaign to unseat Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. Castor, a Democrat, won with 80 percent of the vote in last month’s election.
DeSantis appointed Palermo to the Tampa circuit court in March 2019 to fill a vacancy he created by choosing then – Judge Laurel Lee for Secretary of State. Palermo currently presides in domestic relations court.
Before his judicial career Palermo worked as a federal and state prosecutor with an emphasis on economic crimes. He has a master of laws degree in banking and finance from King’s College London.
‘SASSO LEADS WAY’
None of the three Supreme Court applicants responded to Florida Bulldog emails asking questions and seeking comment.
Sasso grew up in Tallahassee and earned both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida.
After about eight years in private practice, she joined then-Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel’s office in 2016. Sasso represented the governor at the Supreme Court and other state and federal courts.
Scott appointed her to the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach in 2019.
When the Legislature authorized a sixth district-level appeals court last June Canady, then chief justice, put Sasso in charge. “Judge Sasso leads way in establishing the new Sixth District Court of Appeal” was the Florida Bar News headline on Aug. 5, 2022.
She works in the district courthouse at 811 E. Main St. in Lakeland, where Canady also has his chambers. All Supreme Court members except Chief Justice Carlos Muniz are based in their home districts and meet in Tallahassee only for oral arguments and other group functions.
EX-JUSTICES QUINCE, PARIENTE PROTEST
A member of the far-right Federalist Society, Sasso is married to attorney Michael A. Sasso, president of the group’s Orlando Chapter. DeSantis named him to the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) in December 2021.
One of the Florida Bulldog questions that Meredith Sasso didn’t answer was whether she would agree to recuse herself if a PERC-related case came to the Supreme Court in order to avoid an apparent conflict of interest.
Nor did she respond as requested to an opinion piece co-authored by Pariente and Quince that the Tampa Bay Times published March 28. The two women have remained friends and allies since their retirement in January 2019.
Quince and Pariente attacked a recent Supreme Court decision that ended “a decades-long commitment to diversity education in Florida courts. ‘Diversity, equity and inclusion’ became banned terms with a single stroke of the judicial pen and without input from the bench and bar.
“Apparently,” they wrote, “the action was taken in lockstep with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda to dismantle college diversity, equity and inclusion programs.”