TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott is on pace to appoint fewer African-Americans to judgeships in Florida than either of his two predecessors, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush.
In his two years as governor, Scott has appointed 91 judges. Six are black, including the reappointments of three judges who handle cases involving benefits to injured workers.
Scott has appointed two African-Americans to the circuit court bench, both in Miami-Dade County, and has appointed a black county judge in Jacksonville.
In a state as diverse as Florida, racial and ethnic diversity in the court system has been debated for decades, and it erupted anew last week in the state Capitol.
At a roundtable meeting with black legislators, Scott defended his appointments in the face of criticism that his record is "appalling."
"There's a sentiment in the black legal community that we need not apply because we don't think like you," Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, told the governor.
Unmoved, Scott said he's limited in his choices by the lists of finalists he gets from local judicial nominating commissions, which screen judicial candidates and can recommend up to six candidates for each court vacancy.
Scott said he's trying to improve diversity on the judicial panels but also emphasized that he won't appoint activist judges.
"If an applicant — I don't care who they are — believes in judicial activism, I'm not going to appoint them," Scott told the black legislators' group.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush also opposed activist judges and sought "interpreters of law, not creators," as he said in 2004. But one of every 10 judges Bush appointed was African-American.
Scott's immediate predecessor, Crist, who served one four-year term, appointed 15 black judges, five in the first half and 10 in the second, including James Perry, a Florida Supreme Court justice.
Statistically, 6.6 percent of Scott's judicial choices are black at the midway point of his term, compared with 8.3 percent for the term of Crist, governor from 2007-2011, and 10 percent for Bush, who served the previous eight years. African-Americans make up 16.5 percent of Florida's population, according to the Census.
Scott has appointed proportionally more women and Hispanics to judgeships than Crist, and about the same as Bush.
For four decades, Florida judicial vacancies have been filled through a system known as merit retention, which replaced a system in which governors could pick the candidates of their choice. It was designed to lessen political influence and improve the caliber of legal talent on the bench.
Scott's new chief legal adviser, Pete Antonacci, a veteran of four decades in state legal and political circles, said nominating panels continue to be controlled by local political forces and bar groups and that Scott is at "the end of a pipeline" dominated by local politics.
"If people are believing that the system is a politics-pure zone, they're wrong," Antonacci said. "It all occurs inside the bubble of the bar."
By law, Scott has a free hand in making five of nine appointments to each of 26 judicial nominating commissions. He must pick the other four from lists of three names for each vacancy, submitted by the Florida Bar, which Scott can reject without explanation.
Just last week, Scott asked the Florida Bar for new names for JNC vacancies in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit and in the Gainesville area.
Scott has appointed more judges in Miami-Dade than in any other county.
Of Scott's 21 selections in the state's largest county, 13 are white (seven women and six men), six are Hispanic and two are African-American: Rodney Smith and Eric Hendon. In four instances in Miami-Dade, Scott chose white judges to replace Hispanics.
All three of Scott's judicial appointments in Hillsborough County are white; two men and a woman.
"We have a dynamic pool of African-American attorneys in Hillsborough County," said Tampa lawyer Cory Person, president of the George Edgecomb Bar Association, a black lawyers' group. "Gov. Scott's record does not suggest a real effort to attract and appoint minority candidates."
Scott has filled six of nine seats on Hillsborough's judicial nominating panel; none is African-American. All seven Scott appointees to judicial panels in Miami-Dade and Broward are white or Hispanic, according to the governor's office.