High court backs Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala vows new policy

Rick Scott and Aramis Ayala

Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to transfer murder cases away from the office of Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala because she refuses to pursue capital punishments, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Ayala greeted the ruling by declaring she was changing her policy, and would set up a special panel to review the death penalty  appropriateness of each potential capital case. She would not be directly involved.

“I respect the decision and appreciate that the Supreme Court of Florida has responded and provided clarification,” Ayala said in a written statement. “The Supreme Court of Florida ruled today that a case-specific determination must be made on first degree murder cases. To ensure today’s Court’s decision is heeded, I have organized a Death Penalty Review Panel comprised of seven well-versed and experienced assistant state attorneys. This panel will evaluate each first-degree murder case in the 9th Judicial Circuit.”

“With implementation of this Panel, it is my expectation that going forward all first-degree murder cases that occur in my jurisdiction will remain in my office and be evaluated and prosecuted accordingly,” she added.

The case decided Thursday by the Florida Supreme Court had far-reaching ramifications – not just whether Ayala can decide to not pursue death penalties, or what happens to murder cases in her 9th Judicial Circuit. The court decided the governor has the power to strip cases if he has reason to believe the state attorney is not going to follow the law.

“Today’s ruling is a great victory for the many victims and families whose lives have been forever changed by ruthless, evil acts of crime,” Scott declared in a statement issued by his office. “I absolutely disagreed with State Attorney Ayala’s shortsighted decision to not fight for justice. That’s why I’ve used my executive authority to reassign nearly 30 cases to State Attorney Brad King. These horrific cases include Markeith Loyd, an accused cop killer who murdered his pregnant ex-girlfriend and Orlando Police Department Lt. Debra Clayton; Everett Glenn Miller, another alleged cop killer who is accused of ambushing and murdering two Kissimmee Police Officers, Officer Matthew Baxter and Sgt. Sam Howard; and Callene Marcia Barton and Lakesha Chantell Lewis, who are accused of killing a helpless toddler.

“Crimes like these are pure evil and deserve the absolute full consideration of punishment – something that State Attorney Ayala completely ruled out,” he added. “She unilaterally decided to not stand on the side of victims and their families, which is completely sickening. In Florida, we hold criminals fully accountable for the crimes they commit – especially those that attack our law enforcement community and innocent children.”

Ayala’s attorney, Roy L. Austin Jr., said he respected the ruling and suggested that Ayala’s new policy should return cases to the 9th Judicial Circuit.

“State Attorney Ayala has always intended to follow the guidance she was given by the Florida Supreme Court. To ensure that she is doing so, she has set up a panel of experienced attorneys in her Office to review all death-penalty eligible cases. By setting this up, State Attorney Ayala’s action is well within the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling and all cases should be returned to her and no further cases should be removed from her,” Austin said in a written statement. “This gives the governor the opportunity to return the cases to the people of Orange and Osceola Counties.”

The issue might not be totally resolved. Ayala and Austin also filed suit in U.S. District Court, and that case was put on hold while the Florida case was considered and decided.

Numerous outside groups entered the case including the Florida House of Representatives, led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, arguing it had legal and civil rights ramifications.

“Today is a victory for victims and their families, and I congratulate the Florida Supreme Court for such an unequivocal stand for the rule of law,” Corcoran said in a written statement. “I also commend Governor Scott for his courageous action in this case. The people of the state of Florida support the death penalty as a punishment for the most evil among us and those sworn to uphold the law and enforce the law need to remember that the people have spoken. I hope this message resonates loud and clear with all government officials who think they have the power to ignore or override the will of the people. When it comes to the most evil among us the people demand justice and today they got it. ”

“This is a deeply disappointing decision,” declared Melba Pearson, deputy director of the ACLU of Florida. “Florida law gives independently elected State Attorneys broad discretion to determine how best to seek justice in the cases they are responsible for prosecuting. Florida State Attorneys answer to the voters they represent, not to the governor. Governor Scott’s intervention in State Attorney Ayala’s cases dangerously undermines the independence of our state’s prosecutors, and the Supreme Court’s regrettable decision today opens the door to further politicizing of our justice system.”

Said the Florida Sheriff’s Association: “Today, the Supreme Court affirmed that Governor Scott acted in the best interests of Floridians in reassigning more than 30 death penalty cases from State Attorney Ayala in the Ninth Judicial Circuit to Fifth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King. As a representative of the law, Ayala was not serving to the best of her ability when she announced she would not consider the death penalty in any of those cases.”

State Rep. Bob Cortes has renewed his call for her dismissal Thursday.

Cortes, a Republican from Altamonte Springs, sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott declaring “Now that the Supreme Court has affirmed that you are well within your legal rights as governor to reassign her cases, I respectfully request again that you suspend State Attorney Ayala from her position.”

Miriam Aroni Krinsky, founder and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a group that submitted a brief signed by “dozens of former prosecutors and judges, including four former Florida Supreme Court justices and two former U.S. solicitors general,” held firm to the notion that local prosecutors must be left to decide what is right in their circuits.

“Legislatures establish the crimes that can be prosecuted and the range of punishments sought,” she wrote. “But it is the locally elected prosecutors who must decide which prosecutions and punishments to pursue. These decisions are an inherent part of the independent exercise of prosecutorial autonomy.”

The issue might not be totally resolved. Ayala and Austin also filed suit in U.S. District Court, and that case was put on hold while the Florida case was considered and decided.

The main question before the Florida Supreme Court was whether Scott could reassign murder cases to the 5th Judicial Circuit, where King has no issues with pursuing death penalty prosecutions. Scott has done so with more than two dozen murder cases in Ayala’s circuit, including two he reassigned on Wednesday.

The main question before the court was whether Scott could reassign murder cases to the 5th Judicial Circuit, where King has no issues with pursuing death penalty prosecutions. Scott has done so with more than two dozen murder cases in Ayala’s circuit, including two he reassigned on Wednesday.

Yes, the court concluded, by a 5-2 decision written by Justice C. Alan Lawson, with Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices  Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis concurring, and with Justices Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince dissenting.

“Applying this well-established standard of review to the facts of this case, the executive orders reassigning the death-penalty eligible cases in the Ninth Circuit to King fall well “within the bounds” of the Governor’s “broad authority,” the decision analysis stated.

“The executive orders reassigning death-penalty eligible cases in the Ninth Circuit to King do not exceed the Governor’s authority on the facts of this case. Therefore, we deny Ayala’s petition,” the court’s decision, led by Labarga, read.

Ayala and her allies in court had argued that the very independence of elected state attorneys – prosecutors for their circuits – was at stake from what Scott had done. The ramifications raised questions about whether state attorneys could be politically pressured by an all-powerful governor to make decisions on how to prosecute.

The court granted that Scott has the power to reassign cases when he concludes the state’s laws are not being followed, but it stopped short of suggesting that he or any governor could tell a state attorney what to do.

The issue, the court concluded, was that Ayala’s blanket decision, announced March 16, to not pursue death penalties was not an exercise of prosecutorial discretion, but a decision to not exercise discretion, and therefore a refusal to follow Florida law.

“Ayala and her amici urge this Court to invalidate the reassignment orders by viewing this case as a power struggle over prosecutorial discretion. We decline the invitation because by effectively banning the death penalty in the Ninth Circuit—as opposed to making case-specific determinations as to whether the facts of each death-penalty eligible case justify seeking the death penalty—Ayala has exercised no discretion at all. As New York’s high court cogently explained, ‘adopting a ‘blanket policy’ ‘ against the imposition of the death penalty is ‘in effect refusing to exercise discretion’ and tantamount to a ‘functional veto’ of state law,” and therefore something Scott could step in to remedy, the court wrote.

“Ayala’s blanket prohibition against the death penalty provided the Governor with ‘good and sufficient reason’ to reassign the cases at issue to King, also important to our holding is that the Governor did not attempt to decide which cases are deserving of the death penalty,” the court wrote.

Pariente offered a dissenting opinion, with Quince concurring, that Ayala acted within bounds of Florida law.

“When State Attorney Ayala announced that her office would not seek the death penalty in capital prosecutions, she acted well within the bounds of Florida law regarding the death penalty,” the decision’s analysis stated. “She did not announce a refusal to prosecute the guilt of defendants charged with first-degree murder. Rather, State Attorney Ayala announced that she would not seek a sentence that produces years of appeals and endless constitutional challenges and implicates decades of significant jurisprudential developments, many of which have emanated over the years from the United States Supreme Court. Despite assertions to the contrary, State Attorney Ayala did not make her decision based on personal opposition to the death penalty or ’emotion.’

“State Attorney Ayala’s decision was well within the scheme created by the Legislature and within the scope of decisions State Attorneys make every day on how to allocate their offices’ limited resources. Because State Attorney Ayala’s decision was within the bounds of the law and her discretion, Governor Scott did not have ‘good and sufficient reason’ to remove her from these cases,” the dissenting opinion continued.

“The Governor’s decision in this case fundamentally undermines the constitutional role of duly elected State Attorneys,” Pariente concluded.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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