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Politics

Is Rick Scott Being Pressured to Appoint Activist Judges?

March 5, 2013 - 6:00pm

A left-wing group founded last year to campaign for the retention of three Florida Supreme Court justices has teamed up with liberal editorializers to slam the qualifications of a conservative jurist being considered for ajudgeshipby Gov. Rick Scott.

And one prominent legal insider says it's downright hypocritical.

The candidate in question is Alan Forst, one of six being considered for an appointment to the Florida 4th District Court of Appeal. The case against him, according to Palm Beach Post editor Randy Schultz and liberal activist group Democracy at Stake? Forst has no trial court experience, and submitted, as part of his 108-page application to the Judicial Nominating Commission, a cover letter containing a paragraph outlining his conservative credentials.

Those credentials include his active involvement in the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a legal fellowship and debate society that promotes an originalist jurisprudence, and some volunteer work he did for a pro-Ronald Reagan PAC back in 1981, when he was 17 years old.

(A copy of Forst's application, obtained from the Governor's Office of Open Government, is attached to this article.)

Democracy at Stake, whose founder and president is former state Sen. Alex Villalobos, was founded in 2012 to support the ballot retention of three Florida Supreme Court justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince who have been accused by critics of being left-wing judicial activists -- i.e., of not interpreting relevant law according to its original public meaning. The organization has frequently lambasted conservative grassroots organizations and state Republicans for politicizing the judicial appointment and retention process.

The seat Forst is seeking is being vacated by Pariente's husband, Judge Fred Hazouri.

Democracy at Stake submitted this statement to the Tampa Bay Times: "The JNC, dominated by a majority of partisan gubernatorial appointees, chose to include applicants with little or no judicial experience, while passing over applicants with years of demonstrated ability serving on the trial court bench.

There's no telling whether or how this public criticism will influence Scott's final decision, given his recent gravitation toward the political center; his office did not return requests for comment before this article went to press.

One former high-ranking government attorney told Sunshine State News, on background, that Democracy at Stake's opposition to Forst's nomination is hypocritical on several levels. For starters, none of the three justices supported by the organization in the last election had any judicial experience before they were appointed to an appeals court, and Lewis didn't have any judicial experience when he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1998.

Indeed, none of the last five chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court had ever served as trial court judges, eight of the nine current U.S. Supreme Court justices had never served as trial court judges before being appointed to a federal appeals court, and Justice Elena Kagan had no judicial experience at all before her appointment to the high court by President Obama in 2010.

Democracy at Stake did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

It strikes me as hypocritical for this group to have been decrying any political influence on the judicial process and now organizing to actively oppose a nominee that was nominated by a judicial nominating commission, the source told SSN.

Forst, who declined to comment for this story, is the chairman of the state Re-Employment Assistance Appeals Commission, having been appointed to the position three times, twice by former Gov. Jeb Bush and once by Gov. Charlie Crist. The Commission issues orders adjudicating appeals from hearing officer decisions.

Previously, Forst was a litigator in Stuart and at the U.S. Department of Commerce, following 10 years as legal counsel to the chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the directors of Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and Wage and Hour Administration, and the vice chair of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. In each position, Forst assisted in the appellate functions in each of these agencies.

Forst's references include prominent trial attorneys.

The source contacted by SSN insists he has no dog in this fight, his only interest being to defend the professional reputation of a colleague.

Forst has an extremely deep legal background, and has practiced in the federal court system, practiced in private practice in the state of Florida, and his resume compares to several members of our district courts of appeal and our Supreme Court who are currently serving, he explained. In fact, it compares favorably.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.

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