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Governor, Cabinet poised to replace state’s chief administrative law judge

Administrative law judges can be the first line of defense against executive branch agencies.

The next head of the body that acts as a legal check on agencies under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ control is likely to be a lawyer who already works for him.

The agenda for next Tuesday’s meeting of the Governor and Cabinet shows an item for “Interview and Appointment – Chief Judge And Executive Director, Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH).”

At a Wednesday meeting of Cabinet aides, DeSantis’ chief cabinet aide Beau Beaubien said the Governor wanted to interview only John MacIver for the job, currently held by Bob Cohen.

MacIver, a Deputy General Counsel in the Executive Office of the Governor, was one of only two applicants. The other is Kristin Bigham, an assistant deputy general counsel for the Department of Environmental Protection, which ultimately answers to DeSantis.

An aide to Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried asked if they could also interview Bigham. Beaubien agreed.

Here’s why it matters: Administrative law judges (ALJs) 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 once explained.

They can be the first line of defense against executive branch agencies for decision-making that is “arbitrary or capricious,” acting as “a ‘check and balance’ function by increasing administrative agency accountability to the Legislature and Florida’s citizens.”

DeSantis and Cabinet members — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and CFO Jimmy Patronis — must hire the next DOAH head in their role as the state Administration Commission. The chief judge then vets and hires individual administrative law judges. There are currently 28 sitting ALJs in the state.

Cohen is stepping down after a meeting with DeSantis’ chief legal advisor, Joe Jacquot.

Jacquot 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 earlier this year. 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 division, however, is not part of the judiciary in the state Constitution, but is a creation of a state law known as the Administrative Procedure Act.

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.

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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