The head of a Florida judicial nominating commission resigns. Who is to blame?

A strange story has emerged out of Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit. The head of the Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, attorney Alan Landman, resigned after a kerfuffle with Governor Ron DeSantis over the commission’s recommendations for an open judicial seat in Brevard County. Landman maintains that he had no choice but to resign after the Governor directly interfered with the independence of the nominating commission. The Governor’s representatives, by contrast, maintain that Landman was asked for his resignation after he inappropriately pushed his own preferred candidate.

Some of the background facts appear to be undisputed. The Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission is tasked with reviewing applications for open judicial positions in Brevard and Seminole Counties, and recommending between three and six candidates to the Governor. By law, the Governor must select one of the candidates nominated by the commission — a relatively straightforward application of the separation of powers.

Landman was appointed to the commission in 2008 by then-Governor Charlie Crist, and was successfully reappointed by Governor Rick Scott. Landman is a Republican and at least a nominal supporter of Governor DeSantis. Since becoming the head of the nominating commission, Landman has instituted certain internal rules and protocols. Among them is the unwritten rule that when a seat opens in one county, the slate of nominees should be composed of candidates who live in that county. Accordingly, when Circuit Judge Tonya Rainwater announced her retirement this spring, the commission advertised an opening for Brevard County and interviewed candidates from that county. It ultimately selected four candidates that it felt were qualified, and forwarded their names to the Governor.

At this point, the situation took an odd turn. According to sources cited by Politico, DeSantis’s general counsel Joe Jacquot and administration attorney Nick Primrose contacted Landman and insisted that the slate be expanded to include two more candidates, one of whom should be Seminole County General Magistrate Tesha Ballou. In fact, after the slate was reopened, only two additional candidates applied, including Ballou. Landman apparently felt pressured to include Ballou among the revised list of nominees, and once the new slate was forwarded, the Governor announced that he would appoint Ballou to the open seat. This would make Ballou the only Seminole County-based judge working in Brevard County.

Further complicating matters, sometime after the new slate was forwarded (but before Ballou’s appointment was announced), Landman apparently left a message on Primrose’s voice mail in which he advocated for his own preferred candidate. Landman maintains that he had done so in the past, and that previous administrations had asked him for his personal and professional opinions on the finalists. But Jacquot and Primrose argued that the voice mail was a technical violation of Landman’s position, and demanded his resignation. Landman did so by email on June 17.

Landman is now taking to the media to protest the Governor’s inappropriate efforts to influence the nominating process. Of course, Landman does not have entirely unclean hands here; by his own admission, he added his own personal opinions on candidates well after the commission had completed its work. But it also appears that the DeSantis administration is willing to bend longstanding separation-of-powers protocols to achieve desired political results. That’s exactly the kind of political influence that degrades the integrity of the judicial selection process, and the courts themselves. It is also hard to escape the conclusion that the “technical violation” was a ham-fisted way of removing what Jacquot and Primrose saw as an obstacle to favored DeSantis appointees in the future.

Landman’s resignation letter is pointed but professional, and overall he has acquitted himself well. At this point at least, the same cannot be said for Governor DeSantis or his legal advisors.

 

 

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