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How Florida Chooses Its Supreme Court Justices

Florida Supreme Court
Nick Evans

Governor Ron DeSantis will have to make two new appointments to the Florida Supreme Court. The U.S. Senate recently okayed moving two Florida justices to federal court positions. The Judicial Nominating Commission is the Florida group in charge of vetting applications before sending a list of names to the Governor. Leon County Attorney Jason Unger spoke about the process of hiring new judges.

Jason Unger is a lawyer and member of the Florida Bar. Between 2008 and 2019 he served on the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. Unger says the JNC started after complaints about the way judges were previously chosen.

"There was concern that Governors were using it, using judges as a patronage type system where they would select someone. So the constitution was amended and we now have judicial nominating commissions for the circuit, appellate and supreme court level," explains Unger.

The Commission was founded in 1971. It’s made up of nine members, five selected directly by the governor and the remaining four chosen by the governor from a list of nominees recommended by the Florida Bar.

The Supreme Court is made up of seven members, so it’s common to have two from the same region.

"For the Supreme Court level, you have a constitutional requirement that there must be one justice from each of the five DCA regions on the court," says Unger.

He says that makes some application process larger than others.

"When you’re dealing with an opening from a geographic region of one-fifth the state you’re going to have less applicants traditionally than if you have a statewide at-large seat where anybody can apply," explains Unger.

The last time there was a vacancy there were three seats open at the same time, two were open to the entire state.

"We had so many good applicants and they put a lot of effort into those applications, writing samples and there’s a lot of vetting that’s done," says Unger.  "We just felt it was more appropriate to interview everybody than to just knock a few people off the list."

Everybody was 59 applicants. Unger says it took four days to interview them all. He says before they even step in to do the interview they have a good sense of who is coming in.

"So when we have the interview process we’ve done a deep vetting prior to that. We’ve gone through their application, gone through their writing samples, we’ve called lawyers that they’ve worked with, lawyers that they’ve worked against, judges they’ve appeared in front of," explains Unger. "So we have a pretty good feel and understanding of the qualifications that the applicant has."

But what is it that separates one applicant from another?

Unger list off a few qualities, "Intellect, humility in office if they’ve been a judge."

You don’t have to be a judge though; you can apply if you’re a private-sector lawyer. Unger says when judges do apply they look closely at how they performed while holding that seat.

"Certainly if you have a District Court of Appeals judge as an applicant you can review voluminous writings, decision that they’ve done. And it’s not really a matter of whether you agree or disagree on the issue you’re looking at it from a legal perspective of how did they analyze and access the law. How did they come to their decision? How well did they write it?" explains Unger.

But Unger says actions made while being a judge can also hurt you.

"Every governor that I’ve served has had great interest in having judges that have humility in the process. That they don’t put on the robe and become someone else and are just rude whether it’s to the individuals in front of them or the lawyers that are in front of them."

Once they do whittle the list down they must send three to six names for each open seat.

Last time the Governor got a list he selected Carlos Muniz and two former third DCA judges Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck. That was in January, just this week after less than a year on the job the latter two were confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta.

The JNC has about 60 days to get a list to the Governor, who will then have another 60 days to name two new Florida high court justices.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.