The next head of the body that acts as a legal check on agencies under the control of Gov. Ron DeSantis could be someone who now works for him.
The Governor and Cabinet, acting as the state Administration Commission, on Tuesday decided to close the application period even though only two people expressed interest in becoming chief judge and director of the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH).
They are John McIver, currently a deputy general counsel to DeSantis, and Kristin Bigham, an assistant deputy general counsel for the Department of Environmental Protection, which ultimately answers to DeSantis.
The paucity of applications raised eyebrows among some in the legal community: For years, other advertised openings for administrative law judge vacancies have garnered well over 100 applications each.
Administration Commission coordinator Mark Kruse told the Governor and Cabinet the opening was advertised on the commission’s website and “reported in the media,” so “it’s been available for folks to make applications.”
DeSantis said the next chief administrative law judge may be hired at the next Cabinet meeting, now scheduled for April 23.
Administrative law judges can have wide influence; they often “consider cases that impact the entire state of Florida” and can “hear disputes regarding multi-million dollar contracts issued by state agencies,” as the Florida Bar Journal explained.
The current DOAH head, Bob Cohen, is stepping down after a meeting with DeSantis’ chief legal advisor, Joe Jacquot. He told Cohen “the governor wants to re-examine and re-evaluate the leadership at DOAH, as he has been doing with all agencies,” Cohen told Florida Politics in an interview last month.
Cohen was appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush and has served as head of DOAH since 2003.
Chief among DeSantis’ desires are judges “who understand (that) the proper role of the courts is to apply the law and Constitution as written, not to legislate from the bench,” he has said. The Governor and Cabinet hire the chief judge; that person hires individual administrative law judges.
DOAH judges conduct “evidentiary proceedings, much like non-jury trials, involving disputed issues of fact for state agencies acting in their regulatory capacities,” according to the Bar Journal. They also handle challenges to agency rules, teacher terminations and bid protests, among other tasks.
The division is within the Department of Management Services, which also reports to DeSantis, but is independent of its control.
Attorney General Ashley Moody, speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, had her own explanation for the relative lack of choice for the position.
“I find within my own office when we put advertisements out, sometimes we don’t get any applicants,” she said. “We can only put out an advertisement and ask for those that are interested in serving, and then evaluate those that apply. I plan to conduct my own interviews. They will be thorough.”
And if she doesn’t like what she hears? “Certainly I would ask to be provided other applicants,” she said.