By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In the final step in reshaping the Florida Supreme Court, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday named Carlos Muniz, general counsel at the U.S. Department of Education, as his third selection to the state’s highest court.
The appointment of Muniz, 49, who served as chief of staff to former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and deputy general counsel to former Gov. Jeb Bush, solidifies a conservative majority on the court after years of justices regularly thwarting the Republican-led Legislature and the GOP governor.
“The court is going to apply the law as written,” DeSantis said while announcing his selection outside the governor’s mansion. “You may not agree with every decision, but they are not going to go off on a major tangent. I think that is very good for us. I think that the separation of powers will be strengthened with the newly constituted court.”
Muniz said in his new role he has a “solemn duty to set aside my own policy preferences.”
“The role of a judge is to preserve the Constitution, not to add to it or subtract from it,” Muniz said. “I believe strongly in judicial independence, but judges have to earn that independence through their fidelity to the Constitution.”
Muniz noted he shares DeSantis’ “judicial philosophy,” which was outlined in the governor’s inaugural address this month. DeSantis said justices should not “legislate from the bench” and should make the state and federal constitutions their “supreme” guide.
In between his state and federal positions, Muniz worked in private practice. DeSantis said Muniz’ lack of a judicial background should be a plus.
“One of the critiques I’ve had of the court is that they have not understood their proper jurisdiction,” DeSantis said. “They’ve expanded it beyond where they should.”
However, the Florida Democratic Party criticized the selection by noting the appointment leaves the court without a black justice for the first time since 1983 and that Muniz lacks experience as a judge.
“From his appointment it’s clear that Ron DeSantis has no respect for the rule of the law and is seeking to stack the courts with his political allies,” state Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a statement. “Carlos Muñiz has no judicial experience, instead comes with a long political resume that includes working for (U.S. Secretary of Education) Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education and Pam Bondi’s Attorney General Office.”
But Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton, applauded Muniz’s “comments on the importance of judicial independence and the commitment each judge must make to set aside personal policy preferences.”
In a past role as chairman of the House Rules Committee, Galvano worked with Muniz, who also served as a counsel in the Florida House and as a general counsel of the Florida Department of Financial Services.
As Bush’s deputy general counsel, Muniz worked under Charles Canady, now the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. At the time, Canady was Bush’ general counsel.
Bush praised the selection.
“Carlos Muniz is one of the brightest legal minds I know, and he will serve Florida with integrity and with the utmost respect for the rule of law,” Bush tweeted on Tuesday.
Muniz, a Yale Law School graduate who clerked for two federal judges, was appointed in 2017 to the U.S. Department of Education role by President Donald Trump, an ally of DeSantis and Bondi.
DeSantis during the past two weeks appointed appellate judges Robert Luck and Barbara Logoa to the Supreme Court. Luck and Logoa served on the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami.
Lagoa, Luck and Muniz replaced longtime justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who were required to step down this month because of a mandatory retirement age.
Muniz, Luck and Lagoa were among 11 names recommended for the court by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.
DeSantis, an attorney, said he did not ask Muniz during an interview about how he would act on specific matters but rather how they approach questions of law.
“I’m confident if you have the intellectual horsepower and the wherewithal, the right method and you’re applying that, I may not agree politically with whatever decision comes out, but you shouldn’t do that,” DeSantis said. “But I’m confident those will be well-rounded decisions. I think that goes for Carlos. I think that goes for others.”