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Gov. Scott appoints conservative appellate judge Alan Lawson to Florida Supreme Court

Mary Ellen Klas, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

December 16, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott appointed C. Alan Lawson to be Florida's next justice of the Supreme Court Friday, choosing a conservative appellate judge to leave the governor's mark on a moderate court that has been responsible for some of sharpest defeats of his political career.

Gov. Rick Scott chose C. Alan Lawson as the new justice of the Florida Supreme Court. From left his mother Velma Lawson, sister Laurie Cox, Gov. Scott, Alan Lawson, his son Caleb Lawson. (Mary Ellen Klas | Times/Herald)

Lawson, who currently serves as chief judge on the 5th District Court of Appeal that stretches from Orlando to Daytona Beach, fills the seat on the seven-member court that is being vacated by Justice James E.C. Perry, a liberal jurist who is retiring at the end of the month. Perry was the fourth African-American jurist to serve on Florida's high court. Lawson, who lives in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park, is white.

This was the third time Lawson had applied to the high court bench. In 2009, he applied to the court for two openings and was recommended by the nominating commission but was passed over by former Gov. Charlie Crist, who appointed Perry in March 2009. Perry must retire because of a state law requiring justices to retire on their 70th birthday or the end of their six-year term if they are halfway through the term. Perry turned 70 in January 2015 but his term ends Jan. 3, 2017.

Lawson's appointment as Florida's 86th justice will allow the governor to add to the court's conservative minority but it is not expected to tip the ideological balance. The conservative faction is now comprised of Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston. The other justices — Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga — are considered moderates.

Scott said he chose Lawson for his 20-year track record, his public service and because "he's not going to legislate from the bench."

Scott wouldn't cite examples of how the court creates laws but emphasized that he wants his judicial hires to stick to interpreting the law.

The court has handed Scott and the Republican-led Legislature a slew of defeats, ruling that several laws have failed to adhere to the Florida Constitution. Among them were rulings that invalidated the state's congressional and state Senate redistricting plans, rejected the Legislature's rewrite of the death penalty statute and threw out the Legislature's scheme for imposing limits on attorneys fees in workers' compensation cases.

"The judges should not be passing laws on their own," Scott said. "They should not be creating law. They get to interpret the law, enforce the law but they should not be creating new law."

If Scott and other conservatives have their way, the court will overturn some of its previous rulings.

Lawson, 55, has served as a circuit judge, appellate judge and trial lawyer. He joined Scott in the governor's office with his wife, parents and son.

Lawson said that he will approach the job with "judicial restraint" and said there are "a lot of precedents from the Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court that detail what judicial restraint means and what it's not supposed to mean."

But he refused to provide examples in which he believes the Florida Supreme Court overreached, "because it's not ethical for judges to comment on the issues that are likely to come before the Supreme Court, and the kind of issues that have come recently before the Supreme Court could come again," he said.

In his interview before the Judicial Nominating Commission earlier this month, Lawson gave some hint that he is willing to jettison legal precedent, known as stare decisis, in certain circumstances — an approach Legislative critics of the court have said may be necessary to overturn rulings that have slapped the Legislature for overreach. Stare decisis is Latin for "to stand by things decided."

"It you have laid out something that's constitutional, there is no way to change that unless you revisit the precedent," he said.

But, he noted, if the court opinion is wrong, "if the Legislature didn't like it, they can change it."

Dan Nordby, a Tallahassee lawyer and member of the JNC that nominated Lawson, said the shift in approach that Lawson brings will be manifest in how he interprets the underlying statutes in a case. "Some judges look more heavily in favor of what is the overarching purpose of the statutes, others look at the language and text and give primary weight to that."

In his interview, Lawson said his judicial philosophy is "a very originalist and textualist approach," which is favored by conservatives.

The Florida Justice Reform Institute, a conservative legal advocacy group that supported Lawson's application to the bench in 2009, commended the appointment.

"Gov. Scott's thoughtful choice in this solemn duty will have a profoundly positive impact on Florida for a long time"' said William Large, the group's president.

Florida Bar President William J. Schifino, Jr. said Lawson "has demonstrated himself to be an excellent jurist and someone who has the best interests of all Floridians at heart."

Lawson attended high school in Tallahassee, went to Tallahassee Community College and Clemson University and earned his law degree from Florida State University.

Before law school he worked at the Florida Department of Corrections as a legislative liaison and was a candidate for the state House of Representatives from Tallahassee in 1986. After he passed the Bar, he worked in private practice before becoming an assistant county attorney in Orange County in 1997. He was appointed to the trial court by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002 and appointed by Bush to the appellate bench in 2005.

During his term, Lawson has twice been retained by voters and has sought additional funding for the court system, particularly for technology.

Lawson's wife, Julie, is a board member and volunteer for Mi Esperanza, a nonprofit corporation that provides micro loans to underprivileged women in Honduras. They have two grown children.

The governor was given three names to choose from by the JNC to make his first pick to the state's high court. In addition to Lawson, the finalists were Wendy Berger, a 5th District Court of Appeal judge, and Daniel J. Gerber, of the Orlando office of the law firm Rumberger, Kirk and Caldwell.

The governor's appointment is the final step in the process of naming a new justice. There is no requirement that appointments be confirmed by the Legislature.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected]. Follow @maryellenklas.