There are about 600 circuit judges across 20 judicial circuits in Florida’s state court system. They are elected by voters in local elections to hear felony cases, juvenile matters and civil claims, among other complaints.
If, however, for one reason or another, a circuit court judge resigns or cannot fulfill his/her duties -- say, for instance, he/she dies in office -- a qualified candidate can be appointed by the governor to complete the term. Appointed judges must run for election at the next general election after appointment to keep the seat.
In filling judicial vacancies, the governor traditionally relies on a merit-selection process orchestrated by one of the state’s 27 Judicial Nominating Commissions (JNCs).
On June 5, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced five appointments to state circuit court vacancies. Among them is Seminole County Judge Tesha Ballou to serve on the 18th Circuit Court in Brevard County.
Ballou’s appointment is causing heartburn, not because her judgment is in question, but because, critics say, DeSantis ignored the time-honored and supposedly non-partisan rules in judicial appointments.
Ballou, 49, of Sanford, has been a Seminole County general magistrate since 2015. She formerly served as 5th Circuit State Attorney’s Office prosecutor and Florida Department of Children & Families’ regional director.
But Ballou is from Seminole County, not Brevard, and was not among four recommended by the 18th Circuit Court JNC.
Her “forced” nomination and subsequent appointment prompted Brevard-Sanford 18th Circuit JNC Chairman Alan Landman to resign.
In a June 17 letter to Joe Jacquot, the Governor's Office general counsel, Landman wrote, “I believe the JNC should remain independent and autonomous from the Governor's Office micromanaging same or requiring any applicant(s) to be put on the short list."
Landman had served on the 18th Circuit JNC since being appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008. He was commission chair -- an unpaid, voluntary appointment -- during much of Gov. Rick Scott’s eight-year tenure.
The Brevard-Seminole JNC interviewed candidates for a vacancy created by the impending July 12 retirement of Circuit Judge Tonya Rainwater. Nine applicants, all from Brevard County, applied for the seat by the April 5 deadline.
At the request of the Governor's Office, however, the deadline was extended to April 15. During that 10-day extension, two more candidates filed, including Ballou.
According to Landman’s resignation letter, the JNC tele-conferenced with all 11 candidates on April 29. The next day, Landman sent an email to Nick Primrose, the governor's deputy general counsel, suggesting Brevard County Court Judge Michelle Naberhaus “is by far and away the most qualified for our unanimous support.”
But the Governor’s Office turned the table on Landman, saying his recommendation of Naberhaus was improper.
DeSantis’ Director of Communications Helen Aguirre Ferre told USA Today Landman violated JNC rules when he “lobbied for a specific candidate.”
For doing so, Ferre said, Landman “was asked to resign."
“Although this circuit is encompassed by two counties, Alan Landman, then-chairman of the JNC, limited the candidates to only one county, thereby limiting the governor’s ability to choose a qualified candidate from the full circuit,” Ferre told USA TODAY.
Ferre stated, ”Mr. Landman knows that there are ethical duties in the JNC rules that must be followed. Unfortunately, [Landman] violated these rules and lobbied for a specific candidate, for which he was asked to resign. Landman acknowledges violating these rules in his resignation letter."
But Landman disputes that acknowledgement.
"You are requesting my resignation because I committed a 'technical' violation by leaving a message on Nick Primrose's answering machine, after the short list was submitted to the governor's office, supporting one of the candidates on the list,” he wrote. “Once again, over the past 10 years, I have been actively solicited by prior governors [as well as their general counsel and staff] as to my personal and professional opinions on short list applicants, since I have been practicing as a trial lawyer in Brevard County for approximately 32 years.”
Progress Florida Executive Director Mark Ferrulo, in a statement for Florida Access to Justice Project, said Landman is right in defending the role of JNCs in judicial appointments.
"This power grab by Gov. DeSantis is a threat to the fundamental separation of power,” Ferrulo wrote. “You can’t have a governor telling a nominating commission what judges to nominate. Left unchecked, this would set a dangerous precedent."
Landman’s forced resignation sends a chill through the state’s legal community, he said.
“To have a governor not just pick the nominating commissioners, but to now pick the judges for them to nominate, makes a mockery of our so-called merit-based selection system, Ferrulo said. “At this point, you might as well dispense with nominating commissions altogether, along with any illusion of judicial independence."
John Haughey is the Florida contributor to The Center Square.