By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Justice Meredith Sasso brings the Supreme Court potential conflicts of interest from her husband Michael Sasso, a prominent right-winger with big roles of his own – paid steward of government labor disputes, public college trustee and nominal judge-maker.
Sasso also was an anti-Disney warrior for Gov. Ron DeSantis until his abrupt departure Saturday from the commission that runs the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
On Tuesday DeSantis named Meredith Sasso, 40, to the state’s most powerful court; she was sworn in immediately. Sasso stepped up from chief judge of the Sixth District Court of Appeal in Lakeland to replace Justice Ricky Polston.
This is DeSantis’s seventh appointment to the Supreme Court, including five of its current members, all strict conservatives. Justice Jorge Labarga, the court’s only moderate, is a carryover from a much more liberal bench.
DeSantis, who launched his presidential campaign Wednesday, called his high court selections “rock solid” in a speech days earlier to the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Orlando.
“Judicial activism in Florida is now officially dead. We’ve killed it with these justices,” he said.
He alluded to a widely held belief the justices will rubberstamp extreme abortion bans that the Legislature passed and DeSantis signed. The court will have to justify gutting previous Supreme Court rulings that legalize abortion based on state privacy law.
With the addition of Sasso, the court is composed of three women – a record number – and four men. The other women are Justices Jamie Grosshans and Renatha Francis.
MICHAEL SASSO’S MANY ROLES
DeSantis regularly singles out Michael Sasso, a trial lawyer and president of the Orlando Federalist Society chapter, for important assignments.
In December 2021 the governor chose Sasso for the three-member board of the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC), a quasi-judicial body that decides labor disputes between public employees and their government bosses. The Supreme Court can review the commission’s performance.
Sasso is a governor-appointed trustee of Valencia College, a highly regarded community college with campuses in the Orlando area.
And DeSantis put Sasso on the Judicial Nominating Commission for the Sixth District Court of Appeal, which his wife just left. Sasso didn’t nominate her; his current term will end on July 1.
Until Saturday, Sasso occupied a white-hot seat as one of five commissioners of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, previously the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
DeSantis changed out the district’s leadership to install his loyalists and wrest control of a big chunk of Central Florida from Disney. The state’s largest private employer had triggered the governor by pushing back against the “don’t say gay” education law he supports.
In April Disney sued the state in federal court, claiming “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.” Then the Central Florida district countersued Disney in state court — a dispute that’s likely to end up in the Supreme Court.
Sasso didn’t explain his resignation but it may not be coincidental that some media reports of his wife’s promotion mentioned his membership on the Disney-bashing district board.
On Thursday Florida Bulldog tried to ask Justice Sasso what she would do about potential conflicts of interest related to Disney litigation.
Jennifer LaVia, a Tallahassee family lawyer and former professor at Florida State University College of Law, had said Sasso’s only possible course of action would be recusal, citing a rule of judicial conduct that says a judge “shall” disqualify herself in a case where the judge’s impartiality “might reasonably be questioned,” such as when the judge’s spouse is an officer or director of a party.
But that was before Sasso quit the district.
The need for Sasso to recuse in a PERC case is less clear, according to LaVia. PERC commissioners were paid $47,753 in fiscal year 2021-2022, records show.
“It would depend on the specific situation,” she said. “If something came up that might affect his job in some way, she would have to recuse herself.”
SASSO’S LIMITED RECUSAL RULE
The same reasoning seems applicable to Valencia College, although the trustees are unpaid volunteers. Florida’s public school system is embroiled in controversy over educational content and control that could spin off high-stakes litigation about Valencia.
Florida Bulldog wanted to ask Sasso if she would step away from cases within her husband’s orbit. However, Supreme Court spokesman Paul Flemming said, “on behalf of Justice Sasso, I respectfully decline the opportunity to respond.”
Sasso shared her personal recusal rules in her Supreme Court application.
“My husband and father-in-law are practicing attorneys, and I recuse in any cases involving them or their firm,” she wrote. “Otherwise, I have recused … when a lawyer from a firm I was formerly associated with appears before the court on which I serve.”
She didn’t mention what she would do if a case impacting her husband’s PERC job or civic service were to arrive at the Supreme Court.
THIRD TRY THE CHARM
Sasso is a Tallahassee native whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Cuba. They left in 1953, “a time when parts of the Cuban constitution had been suspended, seeking the liberty enjoyed by United States citizens,” she wrote in her application. Her mother’s family has American roots going back to the Revolutionary War.
Both her undergraduate and law degrees came from the University of Florida. In 2016, after eight years in private civil practice, Sasso joined then-Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel’s office, where she helped represent the state in several significant appellate cases.
Three years later Scott appointed her to the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach. Last year, when the district appellate courts were reorganized, then-Chief Justice Charles Canady put her in charge of the new Sixth District in Lakeland.
Sasso applied for a Supreme Court appointment twice before this round, first in 2019, a year after she became eligible, then again in 2022. She joined the Federalist Society in 2011 and networked the right’s influential circles.
At her friend Grosshans’s November 2021 investiture, Sasso expressed their Christian-tinged judicial philosophy.
Grosshans “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,” she said,
“Everyone is made in the image of their Creator,” Sasso said.
‘SERVING THE EXECUTIVE’
Sasso has substantial courtroom experience. Her application lists six jury, 23 appellate and 16 administrative trials. It states that during her four years on the Fifth and Sixth district appellate courts she made final decisions in more than 2,500 cases.
Asked to describe a key lesson learned during her career, Sasso wrote about “serving the executive branch,” meaning the governor, and how she interprets the separation of powers doctrine.
“Appropriate deference to coordinate branches [of government] is not a matter of courtesy; it is essential for the people’s chosen representative to operate,” she wrote.
“Likewise, judicial decisions are not the only available solution to problems. When judges step outside their role, they often justify it by claiming an altruistic purpose of correcting a perceived injustice. But as judges, we should honor both our defined role and the overall system in which we operate,” Sasso wrote.
That had to be music to DeSantis’s ears.