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DeSantis judicial appointments, Legislature’s actions drop Florida from ‘judicial hellhole’ rankings

By John Haughey | The Center Square Dec 11, 2019

Luck and DeSantis

Former federal prosecutor and Miami appeals court judge Robert Luck, right,
speaks after being appointed for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court
by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Miami. Lynne Sladky / AP

Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed three justices to the Florida Supreme Court in early 2019, replacing a trio of retiring judicial activists with judges with track records of judicial restraint and “fidelity to the Constitution.”

In May, the newly reconfigured Supreme Court – transformed from a 4-3 liberal bench to a 6-1 conservative bloc – adopted the “Daubert standard,” rules of evidence that define the admissibility of expert witness testimony that had been long-sought by those seeking tort reform in Florida.

Those factors are among reasons why Florida is no longer the “judicial hellhole” it once was, according to the American Tort Reform Association’s (ATRA) annual Judicial Hellholes report published Tuesday.

Florida dropped from No. 2 on ATRA’s 2018 Judicial Hellholes report to the unranked “Watch List” this year. The state was the 300-member national group’s No. 1-ranked “judicial hellhole” in 2017.

Florida “took great strides toward improving its legal climate,” the report said, stating that DeSantis’ emphasis on judicial restraint “heralded a sea change in Florida’s legal landscape.”

As a result, the state’s “new restrained” high court “is deferential to legislative efforts to stop lawsuit abuse and poised to correct the course set by the prior activist court,” the report said.

The Florida Justice Reform Institute (FJRI) applauded DeSantis for “his leadership that is directly responsible” for “Florida's improving legal environment.”

"When Gov. DeSantis appointed Justices Barbara Lagoa, Robert Luck, and Carlos Muñiz to the Florida Supreme Court, he immediately and dramatically improved Florida's legal environment," FJRI President William Large said in a statement.

"Gov. DeSantis showed tremendous leadership by appointing judges who will say what the law is,” Large continued, “not what they think it should be, and who show deference to the legislature as the rightful policymaking branch of government."

Among other factors cited by ATRA as improving Florida’s legal environment is the Legislature’s 2019 adoption of a bad faith insurance law that alters appraisal rights and, after a seven-year battle, changing its assignment of benefits (AOB) regulations to diminish the potential for lawsuits in hurricane and flood damage insurance claims.

On May 23, the Supreme Court amended sections of state law regarding opinion testimony by experts, replacing the “Frye standard” with the “Daubert standard” that is applied in most states.

Whereas the “Frye standard” only applies to expert testimony based on new or novel scientific techniques and general acceptance, the “Daubert standard” requires trial judges to ensure any and all scientific testimony or evidence admitted “is not only relevant, but reliable.”

Proponents say the “Daubert standard” will create consistency between state and federal courts on admissibility of expert testimony and will promote fairness and predictability while reducing judge or court “shopping.”

The Supreme Court had declined to adopt the “Daubert standards” in 2017.

FJRI’s Large said the group had been lobbying since 2013 to amend the state’s expert-witnesses law.

“The Florida Legislature passed the ‘Daubert’ expert evidence standard in 2013, but a previous majority of the Florida Supreme Court refused to acknowledge that change,” he told TCS in an email. “The court’s decision to finally adopt the ‘Daubert’ standard will change the face of Florida jurisprudence."

With Lagoa and Luck nominated by President Donald Trump to the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals and confirmed by the Senate last month, Large said DeSantis has “the opportunity to permanently stamp an incredible legacy on Florida's legal environment” when he appoints their successors.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, where a jury awarded an $8 billion verdict against Johnson & Johnson, took the No. 1 spot in ATRA’s “Judicial Hellholes” ranking while California placed second in the wake of $2 billion and $80 million judgments against Monsanto Co.

“California’s fall from the No. 1 spot in 2019 cannot be attributed to any improvement in the state’s liability climate, but rather results from the severity of the problems plaguing Philadelphia,” ATRA said. “California courts allow innovative lawsuits to proceed and the burdensome Prop-65 law is exploited by the plaintiffs’ bar. The state is a magnet for class action lawsuits, and given the courts’ and legislature’s anti-arbitration stance, it is not expected to improve.”

New York City took third; Louisiana was ranked fourth; St. Louis, Mo., fifth; Georgia sixth; Illinois’ Cook, Madison, St. Clair counties seventh; Oklahoma eighth; the Minnesota Supreme Court ninth; and the New Jersey State Legislature 10th.