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Governor has no plans to suspend 17th JNC member

Managing Editor Regular News

Governor has no plans to suspend 17th JNC member

Mark D. Killian
Managing Editor

Gov. Jeb Bush has no plans to suspend or remove 17th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission member Rev. O’Neal Dozier in the wake of published reports alleging he asked inappropriate and offensive questions to those applying for judgeships, according to Raquel Rodriguez, the governor’s general counsel.

“The governor is not going to suspend Rev. Dozier based on a newspaper article,” Rodriguez told those attending the Judicial Nominating Procedures Committee meeting at the Bar’s Midyear Meeting in Miami, where the alleged conduct was discussed. Rodriquez also noted that no formal complaint had been filed against Dozier.

The Daily Business Review, a South Florida newspaper that covers commercial and legal issues, reported that Dozier asked a woman candidate how she would balance motherhood with her judicial duties and other candidates if they were “God fearing.” The Review’s stories also allege other 17th Circuit JNC commissioners regularly ask candidates about recent court decisions, such as the courthouse Ten Commandments case in Alabama and the Texas sodomy case, that some think are akin to a political or religious litmus test.

Rodriguez said interviewing potential judges is “an art, not a science” and noted the JNC application itself asked very personal questions, such as marital status, how many children the applicants have, about previous marriages, if the candidate has ever been punished at work, and questions dealing with pedophilia, voyeurism, kleptomania, and other psychiatric disorders.

“We are not just hiring employees. The appointment of a judge is a constitutional function and a judge has a constitutional role and once that judge is on the bench it is not like a normal employee that you can just fire like that,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said while she personally would not ask specific types of questions in a certain way, “you do want to know about the person who is being appointed, you do want to know their life experiences.”

Rodriguez said she did speak with Dozier, who told her he no longer asks the “God-fearing” question after receiving earlier complaints about it. She also said she has determined that other parts of the Review story were taken “completely out of context and inaccurate.”

The allegations made in the Review articles don’t “even come close” to meeting the “specific constitutional criteria” needed to remove a JNC member, who is a constitutional officer, Rodriquez said.

Georgina Rodriguez Pozzuoli, chair of the 17th Circuit JNC, also said some of the comments in the Review article were taken out of context and the questions regarding family were asked of both men and women.

“They were not asked to solicit a right or wrong answer; they were just to get to know the particular candidate, their background, their well roundedness, what they have to juggle in their lives, time commitments,” Pozzuoli said. “They are not intended in any way to put somebody on the spot.”

As for questions about court rulings, Pozzuoli said, “They are contemporary legal issues, they are fair game. We want to know if an applicant is up on current affairs, what their judicial reasoning is, how they interpret cases. It is not about a right or wrong answer.”

“At the end of the day you have to be able to ask the applicant, regardless of what your personal beliefs are, would you be able to follow the law, and if the answer is ‘yes’ it does not matter what they think,” Rodriguez said. “If the answer is ‘no,’ they should not be a judge because judges are there to follow the law, not to impose their personal views.”

Rodriguez said, “Most questions are probably fair game,” but said more training would be appropriate “to make sure people are sensitive in the way they ask the questions.

“Certainly you don’t want to offend people and give the impression that you are looking for a particular type of person,” Rodriguez said, noting the 17th JNC has a history of sending the governor a diverse set of candidates for appointment. “The governor can’t imagine that JNC has any litmus tests.”

JNPC member Morgan Rood said if the questions asked a candidate seem to be to determine a personal feeling and not whether they would follow the law, then they are wrong.

“And I don’t think we need to get too intellectual about it to read the question to know it is wrong,” Rood said.

Rood said asking a women candidate if she would be able to balance her judicial duties as a single mother of twins is inappropriate.

“Everybody in this room knows that is wrong,” Rood said, noting the commissioners could elicit the same information by using the sample questions in the JNC training manual that asks, “Is there any difficulty in your personal life that would impair you physically, mentally, emotionally etc., from fulfilling your judicial responsibilities? We told people how to ask the question.”

Rodriguez said the governor’s only “litmus test” is whether the candidates “share his judicial philosophy that judges ought to be interpreting the law, not being a self-appointed legislator.”

In 2001, the legislature amended the procedure by which people are appointed to the JNCs, greatly reducing the Bar’s role in the appointment process. The governor now makes all JNC appointments and the Bar has no role in investigating or disciplining JNC members.

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