Gov. Rick Scott appointed C. Alan Lawson to be Florida’s next justice of the Supreme Court Friday, choosing a conservative appellate judge to leave the governor’s mark on a moderate court that has been responsible for some of sharpest defeats of his political career.
Lawson, who currently serves as the chief judge on the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach fills the seat on the seven-member court that is being vacated by Justice James E.C. Perry, a liberal jurist who is retiring at the end of the month because he has reached the mandatory retirement age. Perry was the the fourth African-American jurist to serve on Florida’s high court. Lawson, who lives in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park, is white.
Perry, who was appointed to the bench in March 2009 by former Gov. Charlie Crist, must retire because of a state law requiring justices to retire on their 70th birthday or the end of their six-year term if they are halfway through the term. Perry turned 70 in January 2015 but his term ends Jan. 3, 2017.
Scott said he chose Lawson for his 20-year track record, his public service and because “he’s not going to legislate from the bench.”
The governor was given three names to choose from by the Judicial Nominating Commission to make his first pick to the state’s high court. In addition to Lawson, the finalists were Wendy Berger, a 5th District Court of Appeal judge, and Daniel J. Gerber, of the Orlando office of the law firm Rumberger, Kirk and Caldwell.
The governor’s appointment is the final step in the process of naming a new justice. There is no requirement that appointments be confirmed by the Legislature.
Lawson’s appointment to the seven-member bench will allow the governor to add another justice to the court’s conservative minority, now comprised of Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston but it is not expected to tip the ideological balance. The other justices — Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga — are considered moderates.
Among the defeats the court has handed Scott and the Republican-led Legislature are rulings that threw out the state’s congressional and state Senate redistricting plans, the Legislature’s rewrite of the death penalty statute and invalidated the Legislature’s rewrite of the state’s workers compensation system.
Lawson, 55, has served as a circuit judge, appellate judge and prior to that as a trial lawyer. He applied for two Supreme Court openings in 2008 and was passed over for Perry by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
In his interview before the Judicial Nominating Commission earlier this month, Lawson gave some hint that he is willing to jettison legal precedent, known as stare decisis, in certain circumstances — an approach Legislative critics of the court have said may be necessary to overturn rulings that have slapped the Legislature for overreach.
“It you have laid out something that’s Constitutional, there is no way to change that unless you revist the precedent,” he said.
But, he noted, if the court opinion is wrong, “if the Legislature didn’t like it, they can change it.”
Lawson attended high school in Tallahassee, went to Tallahassee Community College and Clemson University and earned his law degree from Florida State University.
Before law school he worked at the Florida Department of Corrections as a legislative liaison and was a candidate for the state House of Representatives from Tallahassee in 1986. After he passed the Bar he worked in private practice before becoming an assistant county attorney in Orange County in 1997. He was appointed to the trial court by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002.
He has worked for additional funding for the court system, particularly for technology.
Lawson’s wife, Julie, is a board member and volunteer for Mi Esperanza, a non-profit corporation that provides micro loans to underprivileged women in Honduras. They have two grown children.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas