By JO BECKER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December
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
"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
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
"Sadly, they are even
less diverse than the first lists I received," Bush wrote in
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
Carol Licko, Bush's general
counsel, said people should judge the governor on his record.