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Bush "scolds" panels that nominate new judges


St. Petersburg Times, published December 10, 1999

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush issued a sharp criticism Thursday to the commissions that recommend candidates for judicial vacancies, saying that he is "deeply disappointed" with their failure to nominate enough women and minorities.

His rebuke was contained in a letter he sent to 11 of the state's Judicial Nominating Commissions asking them to send him additional candidates.

"I am not asking you to supplement your lists with only women or minorities," Bush said. "I am asking you to take a hard second look, however, to determine whether there are additional qualified applicants that should be considered for judgeships."

The letter comes one month after Bush announced plans to eliminate racial and gender preferences in state hiring, contracting and university admissions. And it comes a little over a month after Bush, amid heavy criticism from the Florida Bar and others, scrapped a plan his administration hatched this summer to build a shadow political network to recruit "ideologically compatible" judges.

That confluence of events has some Democrats charging that the Republican governor's plea for judicial diversity is merely a veiled plot to usurp the independence of the commissions.

"His stated reason is that there's not enough women or minorities," said Dexter Douglass, general counsel to Bush's Democratic predecessor, the late Gov. Lawton Chiles. "I think it is the same thing as saying there are not enough Republicans."

At least some of the commissions may not do as Bush requests.

"Our function is not to pick a person because they are a women or a black female -- it's to pick the most qualified candidate," said Bruce Bartlett, an assistant state attorney in the Pasco-Pinellas Circuit who chairs that Judicial Nominating Commission. "I think our committee will react by saying we've done our job."

For now, an association of predominantly black lawyers and the Florida Bar are willing to give the governor the benefit of the doubt. Members of the bar make up a third of the members of the judicial nominating commissions.

"The goal is a good one," said the Florida Bar president Edith Osman. "It's premature to judge."

At issue are 32 newly created judgeships. To fill those spots, the Judicial Nominating Commissions submit a list to the governor of between three and six candidates to fill open or new judicial slots. It is a constitutionally-mandated way to try to keep politics out of the nominating process.

After Bush received the first 15 slates of candidates, he wrote an open letter to the Florida Bar urging more diversity. Of the 56 candidates forwarded to Bush, only 13 were women or ethnic minorities. In five cases -- or in a third of the open slots -- Bush had no choice but to appoint a white male.

Since then, Bush has received the remaining 17 slates of candidates. Of the 65 total nominees, 14 are minorities or women. In nine cases -- or more than half of the open slots -- Bush has no choice but to appoint a white male.

"Sadly, they are even less diverse than the first lists I received," Bush wrote in Thursday's letter.

But some question Bush's commitment. Of the 15 people he chose from the first slate of candidates, three were women and one was black. But he passed up the opportunity to appoint seven other women or minorities.

"He wants to do away with affirmative action on the one hand and on the other hand he's saying send me a new list because there's not enough minorities on it. But when he did have the opportunity to appoint qualified minorities he didn't always do it," said Democratic House Leader Les Miller of Tampa.

Bush spokesman Justin Sayfie said Bush's request to the commissions is an example of how diversity can be achieved through outreach efforts rather than quotas.

Carol Licko, Bush's general counsel, said people should judge the governor on his record. He has appointed 39 judges. Fifteen were either women or ethnic minorities.

"The Judicial Nominating Commissions have passed up enumerable more opportunities than we have," Licko said.

-- Staff Writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.



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