Photo: Jon Rondone | Tallahassee Democrat
Less Intervention: Florida's newest Supreme Court justice changes the high court's dynamics
New Florida Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson has taken a narrower view of which cases the court should hear than his predecessor.
On a Thursday morning in Tallahassee last December, nearly six years after he first took office, Florida Gov. Rick Scott invited reporters to his office to announce his first appointment to the Florida Supreme Court. “I’ve been waiting for this,” Scott said, just before introducing C. Alan Lawson, a veteran appellate court judge from Orlando, as the state’s newest high court justice.
One year later, Lawson, who replaced the retiring Justice James E.C. Perry, an appointee of former Gov. Charlie Crist, has had a subtle but significant impact on the Supreme Court. Lawson, veteran attorneys say, has taken a narrower view of the court’s jurisdiction than Perry did, making the court less likely to take up cases.
That’s important. When the Florida Supreme Court declines to hear a case, it allows rulings made by appellate courts to stand. And two decades of Republican governors have reshaped Florida’s appellate courts more dramatically than they’ve affected the Supreme Court itself, where three of the seven justices were appointed or co-appointed by Lawton Chiles, Florida’s most recent Democratic governor.
The Florida Supreme Court is what’s known as a court of “limited jurisdiction” — meaning it can’t simply choose to weigh in on rulings with which it disagrees. One of the most common ways for appellants to get their cases before the Supreme Court is to establish that a ruling by a lower court “directly” conflicts with a decision by a different appellate court or the Supreme Court itself. Whether there is, in fact, a direct conflict is often a subjective matter.
“Justice Lawson tends to take a much more strict view of what it means to be in conflict,” says one appellate attorney who regularly appears before the Supreme Court. “His more strict interpretation of the court’s jurisdiction is the biggest difference between him and Justice Perry.”
Lawson’s view of jurisdiction has had immediate impacts on the court. Take the case of Sells v. CSX, a wrongful death suit brought by the widow of a CSX conductor. The man died after suffering a heart attack while manually operating a switch to change tracks in a remote corner of Clay County in northeast Florida.
The suit alleged that CSX breached its duty to provide a safe workplace for its employees by not training its employees to perform CPR or use defribillators and by bungling the response to the heart attack, delaying the arrival of paramedics by 22 minutes.
A jury initially agreed, finding CSX partially liable for a $1.95-million award. But the trial court judge overruled the decision, determining that CSX had no duty to anticipate an employee’s cardiac arrest. Crystal Sells, the widow, appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal, which upheld the decision in favor of CSX. So she appealed again to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the 1st DCA’s ruling was in direct conflict with prior Florida Supreme Court rulings.
In February 2016, the Supreme Court voted 5-2 to take the case, with Perry among the majority. But 11 months later, after the court heard oral arguments and Lawson had replaced Perry on the bench, the court changed its mind. By a 4-3 vote — with Lawson in the majority — the court decided it should not have accepted the case and allowed the 1st DCA’s ruling in favor of CSX to stand. (Chief Justice Jorge Labarga also changed his mind in the case.)
A similar reversal happened in Yee v. Florida. In that case, the defendant, Rafael Yee, was charged with trafficking in cannabis after police, called by a neighbor about a possible burglary, found a broken window and entered Yee’s house, where they discovered marijuana plants growing in a bathroom. The trial court ruled that the police had violated Yee’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, but the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned that ruling. Yee appealed to the Supreme Court.
In March 2016, the Florida Supreme Court voted 4-3, with Perry in the majority, to accept jurisdiction and hear the case. But again, after Lawson replaced Perry, the court changed its mind and said it should not have accepted the case. It allowed the 3rd DCA ruling to stand.
Caught by surprise
Lawson’s impact on the court has surprised some court watchers. Before Lawson replaced Perry, most court watchers viewed the Supreme Court as having five justices — including the three Chiles appointees — generally viewed as judicially liberal, particularly in areas such as how broadly to exercise jurisdiction, how much deference to afford to the Legislature and governor and the rights of victims of alleged civil negligence. Lawson’s appointment was widely expected to lead to more 4-3 rulings rather than 5-2 decisions.
That has happened frequently. But there have also been several notable 4-3 decisions in which the court’s trio of more conservative justices have been able to win a fourth vote to their side.
In one such case, the Supreme Court allowed a lower level ruling to stand that permitted a property owners’ association that had been hit with a $2.1-million breach-ofcontract judgment to post only a $175,000 bond while it appealed the verdict. In another, it upheld the conviction of a father accused of concealing a child in violation of a court order, even though there had been no explicit order for him to reveal the child’s location. And in a third case, the court upheld a decision that an Arena Football League player injured during tryouts should not be considered an employee — and thus entitled to workers’ compensation benefits — because a league representative had not yet signed his contract.
“Many thought Alan Lawson’s addition to the court last year would have a minimal impact because it was believed he would join Justices (Charles) Canady and (Ricky) Polston in the minority on most cases,” says Jason Gonzalez, managing partner of Shutts & Bowen’s Tallahassee office and a former general counsel in the Crist administration. “His immediate impact has been more significant for several reasons. Justice Lawson’s appointment increased the size of the judicially conservative minority on the court by 50%. Now Justices Canady, Polston and Lawson only need to win over one other justice to have a majority, rather than the much greater burden of persuading two other justices.”
Flavoring the court
Gonzalez suspects that Lawson, who he says has a “strong, outgoing personality,” has proven to be a persuasive voice in the court’s deliberations.
Lawson declines to discuss specific decisions or evaluate his own impact. He says it was inevitable that his appointment would change Florida’s highest court in some way.
“I think people are in a lot of ways are like spices,” the justice says. “When they enter an institution, they are going to flavor it differently. That’s just a fact of life.”
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