As rhetorical attacks mount against the judiciary in Florida and in Washington, the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court on Monday named three people who value “judicial independence” to serve on the powerful panel to revise the Florida Constitution.
Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga appointed Miami lawyer Roberto Martinez, Jacksonville defense attorney Henry Coxe III and former Democratic leader of the Florida Senate Arthenia Joyner to serve as his appointees to the Constitution Revision Commission, the 37-member panel assembled every 20 years to review the constitution and put proposals directly before voters in 2018.
They each were chosen because they value an independent judiciary, Labarga told reporters at a press conference on Monday at the Florida Supreme Court. He called them "extremely qualified people who care about our state" and said he looked for candidates with "wide-ranging knowledge about our system and appreciation for separation of powers and the independence of the judicial branch of government."
While the chief justice has only three appointees, Republican Gov. Rick Scott will appoint 15 members of the panel, including its chair. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, each have nine appointees. Members of the commissioner are volunteers who will serve until the November 2018 election. The appointments must be made before the legislative session begins March 7.
Labarga’s three appointees are each prominent lawyers in their fields with experience working in the political process.
Martinez, a Coral Gables attorney who has served as the U.S. Attorney for South Florida, is a prominent Republican advisor who served on transition teams for both former Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. He served on the state Board of Education for many years and was a member of the Florida Taxation and Budget Commission in 2007-08.
Joyner, a Tampa attorney, served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years, first in the Florida House and then in the Florida Senate where she was elected Democratic leader. As a student at FAMU. she participated in the first civil rights demonstration in Tampa, part of the effort to desegregate department store lunch counters.
Coxe, a Jacksonville attorney who specializes in federal and state criminal matters, has served as president of The Florida Bar. He is a registered Democrat.
Labarga, who was appointed by Crist, acknowledged that if he had an "ask" of the powerful commission, it would be "the preservation of an independent judiciary to render decisions. That's my pet thing and hopefully it will be something to be considered."
He was asked if that included giving the court's an independent revenue source so it was not subject to the whims of the Legislature, whose members have derided the court in recent years as "the lesser branch."
"That would be the ultimate way to really gain independence for the judicial branch," Labarga answered. "I don't really know whether there are any other states that have that in the country. I don't think that's the case in most states."
His comments come after Corcoran has blasted the majority of the Florida Supreme Court for throwing out statutes adopted by the Republican-led Legislature on the death penalty, redistricting, attorneys fees and a host of other issues. Corcoran said Labarga and his colleagues "do not understand the separation of powers and write whole cloth law." Both Corcoran and Negron told the Herald/Times that they hope the CRC will reverse decisions by Labarga and a majority of his colleagues on the high court relating to school vouchers.
Labarga said he did not have a litmus test for his appointees, and did not consider their party affiliations but did consider their geographic, gender and ethinic diversity. He said did not discuss any of the issues that could come before the commission with the court’s candidates.
"That is something for the commission to develop later on,'' he said. "Right now, no discussion was made as far as what is expected of them. I am appointing them for their experience and for what I believe will be their judgment based on that experience, and their appreciation for three branches of government."
He acknowledged that if he had an "ask" of the commission, it would be "the preservation of an independent judiciary to render decisions. That's my pet thing and hopefully it will be something to be considered."
"I don't see it as a risk but it's always something that needs to be reinforced."
Labarga said threats to the idependence of the judiciary have existed "throughout our entire history in this country - going back to Roosevelt trying to pack the Supreme Court because he didn't like the way they were ruling on his New Deal legislation, going back to Earl Warren was on the Supreme Court...and billboards that said 'impeach Warren.'''
"The relationship between the judiciary and the other branches has not always been smooth so this is nothing new,'' he said. "As long as everybody pretty much respects each others' branch, and does the best job they can that's the way our nation works."
Unlike former Justice Gerald Kogan, who was the chief justice the last time the CRC met in 1997-98, Labarga said he did not want to appoint himself to the panel.
"I decided 21 years ago that I wanted to be a member of the judicial branch of government and I prefer to just stay here and call balls and strikes as I see the law and the facts, and nothing else,'' he said.
More than 70 people contacted the Court to request appointment to the CRC, the court said.