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Florida Supreme Court vacancies give Crist 'tremendous opportunity'

Chris RizoMay. 27, 2008, 2:00pm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline)-The Florida Supreme Court could be completely reshaped in the near future, with four of the high court's justices stepping down in the coming months, legal observers told Legal Newsline.

The departures afford Republican Gov. Charlie Crist the "tremendous opportunity" to reshape the seven-member state Supreme Court over the next year, William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, said Tuesday.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the governor. Never in the history of the Supreme Court has there been so many seats open at the same time," Large said. "This is a tremendous opportunity to create a legacy for the next 25, 30 years."

Florida State political science professor Charles Barrilleaux agreed, saying there is no question that Crist has the opportunity to reshape the high court's ideological bent since some of those leaving the court are considered conservatives.

"The court could become more middle-of-the-road," Barrilleaux said from his office in Tallahassee.

Crist, he said, is more moderate than his predecessor Gov. Jeb Bush, and Crist would be apt to appoint judges in line with him politically.

The governor will have to choose nominees from a list drafted by a nine-member commission, several of whom are-or will be- Crist appointees.

Large said it's his hope that Crist taps judges who are "non-judicial activists," who "apply the law, who do not make up new rights actively pursue new causes of actions, or new legal or judicial theories."  

He added that judges who would "defer to the legislative branch," would also be welcome on the court from his point of view.

Currently, the majority of the high court is left leaning, Large noted.

The most recent jurist to announce he is stepping down from the high court is Justice Kenneth Bell, who was appointed by Bush. He said Friday he wants to return to Pensacola to spend more time with his family.

Bell's resignation comes a month after fellow conservative Raoul Cantero, a Cuban American from Miami and the state's first Hispanic justice, announced he is stepping down this fall. Cantero was also placed on the court by Bush.  

Justices Charles Wells and Harry Lee Anstead will be forced from the bench next year when they reach the constitutionally mandated retirement age of 70.  

The departures will leave Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince on the high court.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo by e-mail at [email protected].

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