Florida Supreme Court says voters should fill judicial vacancy, not governor

Legal News Line May 21, 2008, 10:30am

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) – Florida's Supreme Court has sided with the Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho who believes citizens should decide who fills a state court vacancy, not the governor. "I think the law is pretty clear and we just did what we had to do to make sure citizens had the right to vote," Sancho told Legal Newsline. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist had asked the state's highest court for an advisory opinion because he and Sancho disagreed on how a vacancy on the Leon County Circuit Court should be filled. Crist was in the process of appointing someone to the post, acting on what Sancho called "a very quick decision" by the governor's legal staff, when Sancho took action. He told Legal Newsline that he notified the governor's office of a 2006 law he discovered that seemed to indicate that judicial vacancies occurring after the candidacy qualifying period begins are to be filled by election. Sancho said he asked the governor for clarification on the law, but when Crist's office did not respond, he sued to block an appointment. The seat became vacant when Judge Tim Harley was granted a disability retirement on April 30 -- in the middle of an election qualifying week -- and two days before the May 2 deadline for candidates to file election papers. Sancho and two of the candidates filed briefs as interested parties with the Supreme Court on May 12 detailing their arguments on why the citizens, not the governor, should choose the next judge. Tallahassee attorney Ronald Meyer, who represents candidate Nina Ashenafi Richardson, said Florida law was clear on how vacancies should be handled when they occur before the election cycle begins or after it ends. But parameters were not so clear, he said, on how to handle vacancies in the middle of the week when candidates are qualifying to run for election. Saying that the court's decision "basically tracks what we said in our brief," Meyer said he and Richardson "we're very pleased with what the court did." "I applaud the court for clarifying that the election process begins at the beginning of the qualifying period even if no one has qualified, the court said that's the benchmark we're going to use to determine when the election process occurs," Meyer said. Sancho said that it's his job as an elected official to reflect the will of the citizens and he blamed politics in general, along with the desire of people serving in executive positions to consolidate power, for the increase in litigation over elections. He said he has gone to court over elections frequently in his 20 years as supervisor of elections, but this was the first time he had to go to court on a judicial nomination. Everything is seen through the prism of politics, he said. "Elections are pretty litigious these days," Sancho said. "It seems like the only value that is prized is winning at any cost, those factors really contribute to lawsuits in the area of elections," he said. Candidates Sean Desmond, Leonard Holton and Richardson will face each other in a non-partisan election on Aug. 26. Sancho said that if none of the three win 50 percent of the vote plus one vote, then the top two vote getters will compete in the Nov. 4 general election. From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Lin Young at linyoung10@gmail.com.

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