Crist’s shadow panels are no cause for controversy

Gov. Charlie Crist is drawing criticism for using unconventional methods to vet potential court appointments. Critics said Crist is politicizing the process, but since the governor has the final say in appointments, they are always necessarily political.

Normally, a judicial nominating commission vets applicants and picks finalists for the governor’s approval. According to records obtained by the Daily Business Review, Crist has formed his own shadow panels to assess applicants.

Members of the panels include current state legislators, a retired Florida Supreme Court justice and a former American Bar Association president. According to the records, the panelists interviewed applicants for judgeships in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties and the first District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

Marco Rubio, Crist’s opponent in next year’s Republican U.S. Senate race, told the Daily Business Review that the panels have politicized the nominating process.

“It appears the decision is being made to appease certain demographic groups, certain parts of the electorate,” Rubio said. “It’s so he can say: ‘I appointed judges like you. I appointed judges from your background.’ … It’s politicizing for electoral gain the process of appointing judges.”

Though ominous-sounding, there is ultimately little difference between these shadow panels and traditional nominating commissions. The commissions can be just as political and the panelists actually have less power, considering they never take a formal vote on candidates.

The commissions lost their ability to claim political independence in 2001, when Gov. Jeb Bush changed the way commissioners were appointed. Previously, the governor could only make three appointments to the nine-member commissions.

Now the governor can make all nine appointments. Though four members must be chosen from a list of nominees from the Florida Bar, the governor can reject any list and ask for a new one, according to the Florida Times-Union.

Also, not all members of the shadow panels share Crist’s political beliefs. Two of them were Democrats: state Sen. Dan Gelber and state Rep. Darryl Rouson. Another member was an NAACP attorney.

Though Crist’s actions are likely politically motivated, they have not made the court appointment process any more political than it already is. Though applicants must be vetted, Crist is ultimately the one making the appointment, so it is unrealistic to think politics can be kept entirely out of the decision.

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