The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

DeSantis recounts how he selected three new justices

Senior Editor News in Photos
DeSantis recounts how he selected three new justices

The best way to keep a secret is not tell anyone.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he didn’t want his choices to fill three vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court to leak out. So even those his staff interviewed all 11 finalists and DeSantis had personally chatted with each for between 20 and 45 minutes in December, he kept his picks close to vest.

So close, that it was the afternoon of his inauguration day, while he was preparing for the evening’s ball and thinking about the trip to Miami in the morning where he would announce his first selection, DeSantis realized he had made an oversight. He hadn’t told anyone about his choice, including the soon-to-be justice, then-Third District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Barbara Lagoa.

Speaking at the Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual dinner February 7, the new governor recounted, “I resolved I was not going to announce who I was going to appoint before I was actually governor.

“I told my staff, the day after swearing in, we’ll do a Supreme Court announcement in the morning” before heading to the Panhandle to tour Hurricane Michael damage, he said. “I didn’t tell them who, I didn’t say anything.”

So he was inaugurated, made his speech, attended the inauguration lunch, and baptized his son at the Governor’s Mansion. (An unexpected challenge, he told the audience, has been child proofing the rambling mansion for his young children.)

“So my wife in getting ready for the inaugural ball and I’m kinda sitting there waiting for her to get ready. It’s like 4:30-5 o’clock and it occurred to me, I’ve not told anybody who I’m going to appoint tomorrow, including the would be justice. So I called Barbara and said, ‘If you can be there at 10, I’ll put you on the Supreme Court,’” DeSantis said as the audience laughed and applauded.

Knowing Lagoa is meticulous, the governor said he figured she was up until the early hours of the morning preparing her remarks for the announcement ceremony.

He kept his final two picks confidential, too, but made sure to give the new justices a bit more notice.

With new Justice Robert Luck, who was also on the Third DCA and is also a former circuit judge, “The people who had worked with him, it didn’t matter their political persuasion, they said, ‘This guy’s off the charts, he super smart, integrity, honorable,’” DeSantis said. “He was born to be a judge, he loves this stuff, I think he’s going to do a tremendous job.

“He’s not even 40 years old, but he’s already on the highest court. Some of us, it takes up until we’re 40 to be able to win a big office or serve in a big position,” said the 40-year-old DeSantis.

As for his third pick, Justice Carlos Muñiz, “The good thing. . . is he’s from Tallahassee,” DeSantis said, noting the well-publicized incident where his plane had to make an emergency landing, complete with the emergency oxygen mask deploying.

“I didn’t have reliable transportation, I said, ‘I’m doing the next one [justice announcement] at the Governor’s Mansion,’” he said. “It’s perfect that he happened to live in Tallahassee.”

Joking aside, the governor said Muñiz came with the highest recommendations, including from former Gov. Jeb Bush, where Muñiz served in his general counsel’s office, and from immediate past Attorney General Pam Bondi, where Muñiz was an assistant attorney general before becoming general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education.

“Not only did they provide positive feedback, but just saying, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone smarter than him in the law,’ and they’ve been around a lot of really good people,” DeSantis said. “You see that when you talk to him and you understand this is a guy who is very, very well grounded. He understands the constitutional foundations and he’s had to think about things in a variety of different contexts.”

It was the first time in more than a century the Supreme Court had three vacancies at the same time, due to former Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince all reaching the mandatory retirement age.

DeSantis said, “It’s an honor for me to be able to play a part in being able to shape a part of Florida’s history. I’m just confident the three people I put on there are people who are going to do it in a very high intellectual level and I think they’re going to do it with honor and integrity.”