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One Supreme Court applicant cites liberal wing member as exemplar

Sylvia Grunor stood out among the second round of candidates interviewed Monday for a vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court by naming as her judicial role model the man she would replace — Justice James E.C. Perry, a member of the court’s liberal wing.

Dan Gerber, a civil-trial defense attorney with Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell in Orlando, praised Justice Charles Canady, a member of the court’s conservative minority, as “among the most brilliant attorneys and supreme court justices in the country.”

Brad King, state’s attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit in Central Florida, praised the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

In fact, he said, he’d read Scalia’s book, “Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts.”

“As I read it, clearly that’s the way I think things through,” King said of Scalia’s “originalist” approach to judging.

Still, to Grunor, a trial lawyer and partner with Orlando firm Palmer, Weiss, Grunor & Barclay, “Justice Perry had, to me, a good sense of himself.” He is, she said, “a family-first, law and order guy.”

But she also insisted: “I’m looking to interpret the law as it’s written.”

The Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission began interviewing the 11 applicants to replace retiring Perry, who departs the bench Dec. 30.

The nominating panel will forward six names by Dec. 13 to Gov. Rick Scott, who will then name Perry’s replacement.

Scott has said that he wants a justice to follows judicial restraint and is humble.

None within the second round of interviewees has served on the bench before. Grunor said that would “add rather than detract” from her contributions to the high court.

“Being a trial lawyer, you get an idea of what goes on in the courtroom,” she said.

She would approach the work “not with an agenda,” but to apply her education and experience. “I want to make it a better place.”

Grunor ran unsuccessfully for the trial bench in 2000, and once applied to fill a vacancy in the 18th Judicial Circuit. She practices family, personal injury and insurance law.

She cautioned against judges who give overly broad interpretations of the law. “If the Legislature passed it, my job is to interpret it,” she said — and not to try to read too much into a statute.

Asked what changes she would like to see in the court system, Grunor said: “More access to the courts.” As a trial lawyer, she understands “how hard it is to get into the courthouse sometimes, and how long you have to wait.”

“If I had any influence on that, I’d like to see more judges in the courts.

Gerber has more than 28 years’ experience practicing law — mass torts and class actions, commercial litigation, and voting rights cases included, he said.

He would take “a practitioner’s point of view” to the court. He lamented that the average time for an intermediate appellate court in Florida to issue a decision is 190 days.

“Frankly, time is money,” Gerber said.

An advocate for children with autism, he said the courts represent “the last place” in which to “seek help for the helpless.”

Although not well versed in criminal law, he would approach it like “any other area of law in which you might not have experience.”

Specifically: “Read everything you can get your hands on. After a while, you’ll be able to handle those cases in a predictable manner.”

What kind of court ruling make Gerber grimace?

“When I see a judge of an appellate court saying, ‘We know better than the Legislature or an executive department,’ “ he said. “That does frustrate me when I see that.”

He hates to see “judicial hostility to the litigants and the lawyers.”

Gerber noted his long history in the conservative movement, including assignments for Republican clients during his early days at his firm, before the movement’s ascension.

“I didn’t have to do that,” Gerber said. “I took it because I believed in it.”

Asked to write his own epitaph should be win appointment, Gerber said: “He brought a stabilizing conservative presence to the Florida Supreme Court.”

King spent much of his time explaining his role in the investigation of the 2010 death of Michelle O’Connell — according to her family, at the hands of boyfriend St. Johns County Deputy Jeremy Banks.

King was one of two outside state’s attorneys assigned as special prosecutor in the case. Both determined there was insufficient evidence to support a homicide charge. Rather, King said, the evidence pointed to suicide.

“I could not have taken that case to trial” under the circumstances, despite public demands that he do just that, he said. “Fundamentally, it just wouldn’t have been right.”

He would not serve as a pro-police or pro-prosecution justice, he said.

He believes trial judges should establish the fact record in cases and appellate judges are bound to respect that.

And as for respecting legislative intent, “I don’t think (judges) have the discretion to determine that the Legislature’s intention was” beyond the statutory language, King said. They can’t decide “what they really meant.”

Written By

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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