A group of more than 40 former Florida Supreme Court justices, and judges, prosecutors and legal officials from throughout the country are filing an amicus brief supporting Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala in her power-struggle with Gov. Rick Scott, contending that the issues in their court battles are of national importance.
“By seeking to remove Ayala from all cases that might implicate the death penalty, the Governor does serious damage to the fundamental values of separation of powers and the democratic process, and threatens the bedrock principle of prosecutorial independence upon which much of our criminal justice system rests,” the brief argues.
The group includes former Florida Supreme Court justices Harry Lee Anstead, Rosemary Barkett, Gerald Kogan, and James E.C. Perry; former United States Solicitors General Walter Dellinger, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., and Seth Waxman; four former Supreme Court justices from other states; five current or former state attorneys general from other states, and dozens of current or former judges, prosecutors, and justice officials from throughout the country. Anstead, Barkett and Kogan are former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court.
Ayala and Scott are battling over whether she has the right to refuse to pursue death penalty prosecutions in her 9th Judicial Circuit, as she has declared; and whether he has the right to intervene and reassign her potential death-penalty cases to other state attorneys. He has reassigned 23 of her first-degree murder cases to State Attorney Brad King of Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit. She has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to determine if he can do so, and has sued Scott in federal court.
Scott’s action “is a dangerous, dangerous thing,” former Florida Chief Justice Kogan, who left the Florida Supreme Court in 1999, said to FloridaPolitics.com.
“Let’s assume for a moment that the governor did have the authority to move a state attorney or a district attorney off the case. What’s going to happen, it may not be limited in the long run to capital cases. It could be any case,” said Kogan, a former capital crimes prosecutor and criminal justice chief judge in Miami-Dade County. “So absolutely, you could have the governor as the one who is going to be running the prosecution in that particular state. That’s not what we have, with the balance of power and three equal parts of government philosophy.”
Such a precedent in authority could even lead to the point of the governor controlling prosecutions of overtly political cases, steering them to friendly prosecutors, he cautioned.
The group of judicial and prosecutorial officials intends to file their brief supporting Ayala in the Florida Supreme Court case, arguing that the traditional concept of prosecutorial independence is at stake, not just in Florida but nationally.
“The Florida Constitution establishes a decentralized prosecutorial system, which ensures that prosecutorial decisions will be made at the local level without interference from statewide officials,” the brief argues. Scott’s intervention, it charges, “usurps the will of Florida voters and the interests of justice.”
Written by Verrilli, former United States solicitor general under President Barack Obama and now a partner in Munger, Tolles & Olson in Washington D.C., the brief argues that Ayala has the discretion to decide whether to ever seek a death sentence and to establish an office policy on the matter.
It states, “Across the country, prosecutors routinely exercise their discretion by articulating a general policy regarding charging, diversion, sentencing, and enforcement priorities.”
The brief cites relevant policies created by head prosecutors in jurisdictions across the country, including Oregon, New York, and Chicago.