Conservatives have long decried liberal “activist” judges. But someone’s “activist” is someone else’s brilliant legal mind.
In Florida, the justices on the state’s highest court are a product of a meticulous effort to enshrine the most extreme conservative policies and shape how we live in Florida. Some of them have known connections to anti-abortion groups and causes. It’s in their hands now to decide the constitutionality of an abortion ban that would clear the way for making abortions illegal after six weeks of pregnancy, when most women don’t even know they are pregnant.
Oral arguments on the case began in the Florida Supreme Court Friday. It’s our expectation that the seven justices — five of them appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis — will hear the case on its merits. Yet there’s also little hope that the outcome will be anything like a 1989 ruling by the court that the state Constitution’s privacy clause protects abortion access. In 2017, the court — then with a different make-up — struck down a law requiring a 24-hour abortion waiting period.
Overturning these precedents is exactly what DeSantis wanted when he reshaped the court with ultra conservatives affiliated with the Federalist Society. The group’s leader led a secret panel that vetted DeSantis’ judicial appointments three weeks before his inauguration, according to the Washington Post.
DeSantis is just a piece in a decades-long effort — or activism — to build courts that rubber-stamp Republican policies, not serve as a check and balance, something the governor abhors.
Granted, the biggest conflict of interest on abortion isn’t even coming from a DeSantis appointee. Justice Charles Canady, appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008, is married to the state lawmaker who co-sponsored the six-week ban. As a former U.S. House representative, Canady sponsored an anti-abortion bill in 1995, the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reported this week.
A justice’s previous legal work or stances on an issue shouldn’t disqualify them from weighing in on a case, but Canady’s relationship with the bill sponsor should, a legal expert and a former state Supreme Court justice have said, the Bureau reported. As of Wednesday, there was no motion to remove Canady from the case.
Other justices also have connections to the anti-abortion movement.
The 2019 appointment of Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz, a U.S. Department of Education official under former President Donald Trump, was celebrated by a known anti-abortion group. Muñiz later personally took members of the Florida Family Policy Council on a tour of the courthouse building in Tallahassee, Florida Bulldog reported. After his appointment, he made a statement saying he would recognize the “God-given dignity and worth of every human life.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong about that, but it raises questions.
On the other hand, Muñiz authored a little-known 2004 article as a private lawyer saying that the privacy clause in Florida’s constitution was designed to protect abortion rights, the Washington Post reported. Planned Parenthood and other plaintiffs challenging Florida’s ban cited Muñiz’s writing in their opening brief in hopes that he will live up to it.
Justice Jamie Grosshans did legal work for a group that discourages women from having abortions. She wrote in a 2016 article that lawyers are “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”
DeSantis put Muñiz and Grosshans on the court. Their appointments aren’t just meant to give conservatives a better shot at prevailing. They are an effort to insert an ideological and religious view into the judiciary branch.
The more ideological, the better for DeSantis.
Case in point: Another DeSantis appointee, Justice Meredith Sasso, is a member of the Teneo Network, a secretive group whose purpose is to “crush liberal dominance” across American life.
A conservative or liberal court is no guarantee that partisanship will always prevail, as the conservative U.S. Supreme Court proved when it recently ruled against Republicans in an Alabama congressional redistricting case. But Florida’s highest court has allowed some of DeSantis’ most extreme policies to go into effect.
The court recently ruled against reinstating Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, whom the governor suspended last year, in part for signing a pledge to not prosecute abortion cases. The justices said Warren waited too long to present his case, even though a federal judge said his removal was unconstitutional.
As the old political saying goes, elections have consequences. Serious ones.