Judges of the Fourth District Court of Appeal

Judges of the Fourth District Court of Appeal (Fourth District Court of Appeal/Courtesy / February 6, 2012)

The legal and political worlds in Broward and Palm Beach counties are swirling with speculation – and concern – over who Gov. Rick Scott will pick to fill a coveted judicial vacancy on the District Court of Appeal that hears cases from six South Florida counties.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. But those who know the most – practicing lawyers who are deeply involved in the political process – won’t discuss it with their names attached because they’ll likely appear before and have cases decided by the Fourth District Court of Appeal and don’t want to get on the wrong side of the new judge Scott appoints.

A Judicial Nominating Commission winnowed a field of 18 applicants and submitted six names to Scott last month:

Peter Blanc, a circuit court judge since January 1999 and currently Palm Beach County’s chief judge.

Janis Brustares Keyser, appointed a Palm Beach County Circuit Court judge by Scott in May 2011 and elected to the post in 2012.

Mark Klingensmith, appointed by Scott in June 2011 and elected by voters in 2012 as a circuit judge for Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties.

Krista Marx, a Palm Beach County circuit judge since January 1999.

Elizabeth Metzger, a circuit judge since April 2005 serving Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties.

John Murphy, who’s been a Broward circuit judge since January 2002.

 “The six people we sent up [to the governor] are all excellent,” said Peter Feaman a Boynton Beach attorney and member of the Judicial Nominating Commission. Feaman is the state Republican Party committeeman for Palm Beach County and Florida’s national committeeman representing the state on the national party. He declined to comment on the candidates or any speculation about who the governor is likely to pick to fill the vacancy created by Judge Mark E. Polen’s retirement.

“Our job is to send up the very best qualified candidates, and that’s what I think the commission tried to do,” said its chairman, Louis Silber of the West Palm Beach firm Silber Valente & Davis. Silber is a Democrat.

(Among those who didn’t make the commission’s cut: Broward circuit Carol-Lisa Phillips, who is the wife of former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle.)

Some in Broward’s legal establishment want to see someone from Broward – which means Murphy – get the job.

Jack Seiler, a Democrat, attorney and mayor of Fort Lauderdale, said geography is a concern for him. “I think the seat probably belongs to a Broward County judge. We have had several Broward County judges rotate off the Fourth DCA and retire,” he said.

In Palm Beach County, the concern is different. A group of 51 lawyers, members of the Palm Beach County and South Palm Beach County chapters of the Florida Association for Women lawyers wrote to Scott expressing their “very serious concern” about what they labeled a “gender drought.”

No woman has been appointed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal since 2002 and the lawyers, a mixture of men and women, asked him to “reflect on this ‘gender drought’ before making the appointment.” Given the age of the current judges they wrote that it could be years before there’s another vacancy “and to go 15 years or so without the appointment of a woman judge – inadvertent or not – seems a significant disservice to our community and the state overall.”

People involved in the process said the push for a  Broward judge and the push for a female  judge have another motivation: stopping the possible appointment of Klingensmith. He’s a former chairman of the Martin County Republican Party and former commissioner and mayor of the Town of Sewall’s Point, and has less judicial experience than most of the other candidates.

In a front page article he wrote for the Martin County Republican Party newsletter in December 2010 -- before he became a judge -- Klingensmith praised the voters for delivering a “national rebuke” to Democrats who were attempting to “advance their far-left agenda at the expense of taxpayers.”

He said the voters sent a “clear message” to the “Nancy Pelosi liberals in Congress,” and praised the victories of Republicans Scott, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Allen West.

Klingensmith said by email he couldn't comment. "I appreciate the courtesy of your contact, however I do not feel it would be appropriate for me to comment in any way whatsoever on these or other matters related to my nomination. I hope you understand," he warote.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Scott's office responded to questions posed Wednesday morning, including whether candidates would be interviewed Thursday and which ones would get interviews. Via email, a Scott press representative wrote:

Governor Scott has until July 2 to make a selection. The interview process is ongoing.

The six nominees either have been interviewed in connection with a previous 2013 vacancy or will be interviewed prior to the deadline.

We are working on getting applications to you.  Our Office of Open Government will be in contact.

Governors routinely say politics would never enter their minds when picking judges, and routinely people on the political left or political right speculate that politics has a role.

“The appointment of judges is inherently political, since the governor gets to make the decision,” said Julie H. Littky-Rubin, an attorney with the Clark Fountain law firm in West Palm Beach, and past president of the Palm Beach County chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers.

Littky-Rubin said the letter had nothing to do with politics and wasn’t aimed at stopping anyone else. The objective, she said, is to get the governor thinking about the gender issue. The Fourth District Court of Appeal has eight male and three female judges.

It’s difficult to predict how Scott may act. He was the conservative, tea party alternative in the 2010 Republican primary for governor. More recently, as he’s approached his 2014 re-election, he’s moderated several of his positions. Moves to the center may help him win middle of the road voters, but risk alienating the more conservative Republican base, which he also needs to win re-election.

Walter “Skip” Campbell, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, former Democratic state senator and unsuccessful 2006 nominee for state attorney general, said he wants to ensure that Scott doesn’t pick a judge because of his political leanings.

 “The concern is that a political party seems to want to change the independent judiciary into a political force, which is inconsistent with our Constitution. And we have to fight it every way we can so in fact we protect our constitution and protect the rights of individual people,” he said.