TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – An issue that has long been argued inside and outside of Florida courtrooms is again coming to a head.
Ex-prosecutors, former state Supreme Court justices, civil-rights organizations and families of homicide victims from across the country have filed briefs supporting embattled Central Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala in her legal battle with Gov. Rick Scott.
Lawyers representing the groups filed more than a half-dozen friend-of-the-court briefs Friday in Ayala’s Florida Supreme Court challenge against the governor and Ocala-area State Attorney Brad King after Scott reassigned 23 death-penalty cases being handled by Ayala’s office to King.
The briefs came after the Florida House of Representatives, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and other families of victims notified the court they intend to also file briefs in the case backing Scott.
Scott removed Ayala, the state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, from the cases after she announced in March she did not intend to seek death for accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd or any other defendants charged with capital crimes.
Scott stripped her of the cases “in the interest of justice,” the governor said in a statement at the time.
“State Attorney Ayala’s complete refusal to consider capital punishment for the entirety of her term sends an unacceptable message that she is not interested in considering every available option in the fight for justice,” he said.
But legal experts — including many death penalty opponents — and Ayala’s lawyers maintain that Scott lacked the authority to reassign the cases, because prosecutors enjoy broad discretion in charging decisions, including whether to seek capital punishment.
The entrance into the case last week of former justices, prosecutors and others from across the country — including two former U.S. solicitor generals appointed by President Bill Clinton — has sharpened a national spotlight on the controversy, focused largely on the separation of powers between different branches of government.
“When one state actor usurps the responsibilities allocated to another, the balance is upset, and the legitimacy of the justice system itself is called into question. This is especially concerning where a defendant’s life is at stake,” lawyers for the group wrote in a brief filed Friday.
Ayala’s lawyer, Roy Austin, told The News Service of Florida that the case has drawn national attention because, for many in the legal and civil rights communities, the independence of the judicial system is at stake.
“The justice system is supposed to be, and holds itself out to be independent of political influence. This is one of the clearest cases of an attempt to politicize our justice system. So I think people nationally who care about the independence of the justice system care about what happens in this case,” Austin said.
Ayala, who unseated former State Attorney Jeff Ashton last year, argued that she based her decision on research that shows the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, is discriminatory, is costly, leaves the families of victims in limbo for too long, and is imposed on innocent people too often.
Within hours of her March announcement, Scott reassigned the case of Loyd — accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and the execution-style murder of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton — to King, and later reassigned nearly two-dozen other cases to the Ocala-area prosecutor.
Scott’s handling of Ayala, Florida’s first black elected state attorney, sparked outrage from African-American lawmakers, civil rights groups and others who accused the governor of singling out the prosecutor for political reasons, and heightened a racial divide centered on disparities in the administration of death sentences.
In contrast, a handful of GOP House members, along with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, applauded Scott’s decision to reassign the cases, and have urged the governor to oust Ayala from office.
Lawyers for the House of Representatives, which has until May 3 to file its brief in support of Scott, argued that the governor was correct to reassign the cases after she announced she would not uphold the policies established by the Legislature.
“The House can provide the (Supreme) Court useful insight regarding petitioner’s position about the role of a state attorney as an arbiter of public policy adopted by the Legislature,” House General Counsel Adam Tanenbaum and Assistant General Counsel J. Michael Maida wrote in a petition filed earlier this month.
The House intends to “address the exclusive role assigned by the Constitution to the Legislature in the setting of public policy for the state and the ill effects that flow from the refusal of a state officer or agent to enforce a duly enacted legislative policy based on his or her disagreement with the rectitude or efficacy of that policy,” the House lawyers wrote.
The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and family members of victims — including Clayton’s husband and Dixon’s mother — have also asked permission to file amicus briefs supporting Scott.
Some other victims’ families — along with a handful of House and Senate Democratic lawmakers — have filed briefs supporting Ayala. Like other backers, many of them maintain that allowing the governor to second-guess an elected prosecutor’s decisions could set a dangerous and far-reaching precedent. The arguments mirror those made by Ayala’s attorneys in the state and federal lawsuits.
“The correct decision in this case may be an unpopular one in some political circles. Yet, if the criminal justice system in Florida is to remain a fair, equitable and decentralized system, as envisioned by the Florida Constitution, it is up to this court to support and protect it,” lawyers for the former prosecutors, justices and others wrote.
And, in a brief also filed Friday, lawyers representing the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, the Sentencing Project and Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty also implied that Ayala’s race could have played a factor in her being “singled out” by Scott, when other prosecutors frequently choose to seek life sentences instead of death.
“Florida prisons are full of inmates eligible for the death penalty who are instead serving life imprisonment without parole. No governor, current or past, looked over the shoulder of the prosecutors — heretofore always white — responsible for those many prosecutions ending in life imprisonment,” lawyers for the civil-rights groups wrote.
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.
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