If it is on his wish list, Rick Scott should throw a raucous party on his final morning in the Governor's Mansion in January 2019. His very own parade down Monroe Street in Tallahassee even could be allowed. What Scott should not be allowed to do is pack the Florida Supreme Court by appointing three new justices hours before his successor is scheduled to take office.
That audacious plan is precisely what Scott is determined to do on his way out the door. Never mind that his strategy would break with recent precedent. Never mind that voters made clear in 2014 that they do not believe an outgoing governor should have that authority. Scott plans on defying common sense, and perhaps the Florida Constitution, with a power grab that could redefine the direction of the state for years to come.
The Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause have asked the Supreme Court to avoid a "constitutional crisis'' and affirm a future governor's right to name incoming justices. Scott's attorneys asked that the lawsuit be dismissed and asserted the three departing justices will reach their age-mandated retirements at the end of Jan. 7, 2019, while Scott would remain in office until his successor is sworn in on Jan. 8. The plaintiff's response is due this week.
To be sure, this is not a new debate in Florida. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and incoming Republican Gov. Jeb Bush faced the same situation in 1998, and they agreed to interview candidates before jointly naming Peggy Ann Quince to the Supreme Court. Former Govs. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and Bob Martinez, a Republican both avoided potential confrontations by allowing their successors to fill court vacancies. Seeking to clarify the issue, the Legislature placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2014 that would have turned the authority over to the outgoing governor. The amendment, which needed 60 percent approval to pass, mustered only 48 percent of the vote.
This means Scott is both defying the statesmanlike decisions of previous governors and ignoring the undisputed desire of the voters. The Supreme Court would be wise to quickly shut the door on this potential calamity. Beyond the wishes of voters, it is a simple question of accountability. No governor should be allowed to make such a lasting choice while not sticking around to face potential backlash. If this was allowable, what would stop an outgoing governor from naming an extreme ideologue, benefactor or family member to the Supreme Court?
Clearly, this is as much of a political issue as a constitutional question. The three retiring justices — R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — all lean toward the liberal side of the court. That means Scott would be able to reshape the balance of the court for a decade or more if he is allowed to replace all three in the hours before the Jan. 8, 2019, inauguration of the next governor. Considering Republicans have won the last five gubernatorial elections, there's a decent chance a Republican governor will be making this decision no matter what the Supreme Court decides.
But political parties are not the point here. This should be a constitutional question. It should be a common sense question. It should be a question that reflects the values and desires of Florida's voters. The justices should waste no time in telling Scott — and all future governors — that last-minute appointments to the state's highest court are not in Florida's best interests.