The Florida Supreme Court will be three justices short on Jan. 8, 2019, the same day Gov. Rick Scott’s term limit ends.
But the governor’s attempts to line up replacements could pose a legal dilemma and significantly sway the court’s ideological makeup.
In response, Scott has requested that the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, or JNC, spend 60 days deliberating and deciding on three to six nominees per departing justice ”to minimize or avoid any period of vacancy.”
“Beginning the process to fill these vacancies right now follows the practice of previous governors,” Scott said in a statement. “Florida’s Supreme Court is so important to Floridians, and we will work together to select the most qualified justices to faithfully serve our state.”
Scott had announced plans to appoint three justices on his last morning as governor, but the League of Women Voters’ Florida branch and government watchdog group Common Cause objected, arguing that Florida’s next governor, not Scott, should carry out the appointments.
The groups petitioned the state Supreme Court, and Scott argued he had the power of appointment and moved for dismissal, citing lack of jurisdiction. The court dismissed the lawsuit in December 2017, stating it could not rule on something yet to happen.
“Until some action is taken by the governor, the matter the League seeks to have resolved is not ripe,” the panel wrote.
If the decision does fall to Scott, the Florida Supreme Court could end up with six conservative judges.
Current Justices Lewis, Pariente and Quince are left-leaning.
Pariente was appointed to the court in 1997 by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. She was chief justice from 2004 to 2006.
Lewis and Quince rose to the court in 1998 and were also appointed by Chiles.
According to Scott’s office, he intends to follow the example of Chiles, who in 1998 passed the baton to Republican Jeb Bush, both of whom settled on appointing Quince to the bench.
Scott is campaigning to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democratic incumbent, in his bid for the U.S. Senate. If Scott wins, he might have to step down Jan. 3 when Congress begins its 2019 term.
In the running for Scott’s gubernatorial seat are Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, who sit on polar-opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Florida’s next governor will take office Jan. 8.