HCBA Lawyer Magazine Vol. 28, No. 2 | Page 20

HOw FRAMing THE iSSuE On APPEAL CAn BE diSPOSiTivE Appellate Practice Section Chairs: Heather Fesnak - Akerman LLP & Tom Seider - Brannock & Humphries The battle came down to one of discretion: prosecutorial on the T one hand versus executive on the other. hree subjects at the core of the Florida Supreme Court’s institutional role in state government — constitutional interpretation, separation of powers, and the death penalty — intersected on a cooler-than-usual Tallahassee day in June 2017, when political leaders gathered under the Court’s recently refurbished dome to observe oral arguments in Ayala v. Scott. The result, issued two months later in a written opinion by the Court’s newest Justice, C. Alan Lawson, offered insight into the scope of executive power and the standards that the state’s highest court applies to actions taken by its highest-ranking public official. The dispute stemmed from statements by Ninth Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala, made soon after becoming Florida’s first and only African American elected as a lead prosecutor, that she did not plan to pursue the death penalty as a sentencing option in first-degree murder cases. See Ayala v. Scott, No. SC17-653, 2017 WL 3774788, at *1 (Fla. Aug. 31, 2017); see also id. at *5 (Pariente, J., dissenting). Unhappy with this decision, Governor Rick Scott swiftly responded, issuing a series of executive orders reassigning © Can Stock Photo / denyskuvaiev death-penalty eligible cases in Ayala’s circuit to the state attorney in a neighboring circuit. Id. at *1. Ayala then petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to intervene, claiming that Governor Scott lacked the legal authority to remove her for exercising her independent judgment. Id. The battle came down to one of discretion: prosecutorial on the one hand versus executive on the other. Nowhere were these battle lines more clearly on display than in the disparate framing of the appellate issue by the Supreme Court’s majority and dissenting opinions. Speaking for four members of the Court, Justice Lawson saw Ayala’s petition as a “challenge [ ] to the Governor’s exercise of his broad discretion in determining ‘good and sufficient reason’ for assigning a state attorney to another circuit.” Id. at *2 (quoting Finch v. Fitzpatrick, 254 So. 2d 203, 205 (Fla. 1971) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Viewed in this light, Justice Lawson said, the executive orders fell “well ‘within the bounds’ of the Governor’s ‘broad authority.’” Id. By contrast, Justice Pariente’s dissent framed the case as one “about the independence of duly elected State Attorneys to make lawful decisions within their respective jurisdictions as to sentencing and allocation of their offices’ resources, free from interference by a Governor who disagrees with their decisions.” Id. at *4 (Pariente, J., dissenting). Viewed this way, Justice Pariente opined, “State Attorney Ayala’s decision was within the bounds of the law and her discretion” and Governor Scott therefore did not have “good and sufficient reason” to remove her. Id. at *7. So, in this case at least, executive discretion prevailed over prosecutorial discretion. Whether that theme permeates future Supreme Court rulings remains to be seen. But in any event, Ayala v. Scott offers a good reminder that appellate outcomes are often shaped by something as simple as the framing of the issue on appeal. Author: Joe Eagleton – Brannock & Humphries Update Your Member Profile at hillsbar.com. 18 NOV - DEC 2017 | HCBA LAWYER