There’s a new sheriff in town, both literally and figuratively.
Gov. Ron DeSantis came in as Florida’s chief executive with both guns blazing during a week of pomp, pageantry and policy-making.
After being sworn in Tuesday, DeSantis appointed the state’s first Cuban-American female Supreme Court justice, handed pink slips to a water-management board (or at least tried to), and suspended two elected county officials, including beleaguered Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who was replaced by veteran cop Gregory Tony.
DeSantis, a former congressman, also issued a sweeping executive order targeting the state’s water woes. The order created an “Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency,” an “Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection,” and the post of “Chief Science Officer” to deal with toxic algae blooms and other issues that have plagued Florida rivers and coastlines.
The newly minted governor was asked before his first Cabinet meeting Friday about “climate change” — a phrase that purportedly was verboten during the reign of his predecessor, now-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
When asked whether he believes in climate change, DeSantis avoided a direct answer.
“We put in that executive order that, as climate changes and our environment changes, water rises in places in South Florida and there’s increased flooding, we want to make sure that we’re taking steps that we can to combat that. We’re going to create an Office of Resiliency to try to combat effects,” DeSantis said. “Look, to me, I’m not even concerned about, is it this sole cause, that sole cause, when you have water in the streets you have to find a way to combat that.”
The Governor said his office intends to coordinate “a thoughtful response” to the issue but didn’t bite when asked if he agrees with scientists that humans contribute to climate change.
“Next, next question,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis also flexed his executive muscle in other ways, including targeting appointments that Scott made in his final days in office. The new governor said he intends to yank some of the “effectively lame-duck appointments,” or those that have not been confirmed by the Senate.
“Now, some of the people in that batch were people that I know and respect. You may see me reappoint some of them back. But we’re pulling all of them back. We’re going to take a fresh look at it, and we’ll move forward from there,” DeSantis said.
‘Essence of what a judge should be’
Hitting the ground running Wednesday morning, DeSantis appointed appellate judge Barbara Lagoa to the Florida Supreme Court.
The governor’s selection of Lagoa, the daughter of Cuban émigrés, was the first of three Supreme Court appointments DeSantis will make, following the mandatory retirement of three justices who comprised what had been the court’s more liberal-leaning bloc.
Lagoa’s addition will cement a conservative majority that will include Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Alan Lawson and Ricky Polston, all of whom Lagoa cited as references in her application for the post. It also will keep DeSantis’ pledge to purge the Supreme Court of “activist” jurists.
DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate who served as a judge advocate in the Navy, hailed Lagoa as “the essence of what a judge should be.”
Lagoa, 51, grew up in Miami and attended New York’s Columbia Law School, where she edited the prestigious law review. A onetime federal prosecutor in Florida’s Southern District, Lagoa had experience in criminal and civil litigation before former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to the 3rd District Court of Appeal in 2006, where she has served for more than 12 years.
In her remarks, Lagoa, accompanied by her parents, husband and three daughters, left little doubt that she will fulfill DeSantis’ expectations.
The Florida Supreme Court is “tasked with the protections of the people’s liberties under law,” Lagoa said.
“And in that regard, I am particularly mindful of the fact that, under our constitutional system, it is for the Legislature and not the courts to make the law. It is the role of judges to apply, not to alter, the work of the people’s representatives. And it is the role of judges to interpret our Constitution and statutes as they are written,” she said.
Wiping up water woes
The following day, DeSantis laid out an aggressive agenda to expand efforts to improve Florida’s troubled waters.
Appearing in areas hit hard by outbreaks of toxic algae and red tide, DeSantis said he was fulfilling a campaign pledge to “take action” to address the issue.
DeSantis’ executive order calls for $2.5 billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration and water resource protection, a $1 billion increase over what was spent the prior four years.
The governor also instructed the South Florida Water Management District to “immediately” start the next phase of a reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee and to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the project on schedule.
He didn’t stop there.
DeSantis also demanded the resignations of each of the eight members — one seat is vacant — of the water district’s governing board, all of whom were appointed by Scott.
The board has been under fire since voting in late November to grant sugar behemoth Florida Crystals a lease extension for land eyed for a reservoir.
‘Vilified and trampled on’
Pointing to a denial of due process, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ordered DeSantis to give former Broward County elections chief Brenda Snipes the opportunity to tell her side of the story after Scott stripped her of the job.
Snipes, a Democrat appointed by former Gov. Bush and subsequently re-elected four times, announced Nov. 18 she would step down as supervisor, effective Jan. 4, after a turbulent election.
But on Nov. 30, Scott issued an executive order suspending Snipes and replacing her with his longtime ally, Pete Antonacci. The order cited widespread problems during the 2018 elections and accused Snipes of demonstrating “misfeasance, incompetence and neglect of duty.”
The day after the executive order, Snipes held a news conference and rescinded her resignation. Seeking to regain her job, Snipes later filed a federal lawsuit against Scott and Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican.
Writing in a 12-page ruling Wednesday, Walker, who heard arguments in the case Monday, found that Snipes could not withdraw her resignation after her replacement had been appointed and sworn in because it was “an unconditional resignation.”
“But rather than accept the resignation quietly and avoid trampling on Snipes’ due process rights, Scott suspended Snipes and vilified her without giving her a meaningful opportunity to be heard,” Walker scolded.
Walker gave DeSantis until Jan. 31 to provide Snipes notice, and until March 31 to give Snipes “meaningful opportunity to be heard,” either in writing or orally.
The federal judge delivered a stinging rebuke to Scott, whose administration he frequently excoriated in rulings in other cases. DeSantis became a party in the case after Scott left office.
“The law can be unclear at times. Statutes can be ambiguous; case law can meander, diverge or swerve from common sense. Judges face murky legal issues every day. Today is not one of those days. Procedural due process is not ambiguous. Flagrantly disregarding plaintiff’s constitutional rights fits into an unfortunate rhythm for Scott. But the ease and comfort Scott has in overlooking plaintiff’s due process rights does (not) make it legally permissible,” Walker wrote.
Story of the week
Gov. DeSantis, sworn into office Tuesday, appointed a new Florida Supreme Court justice, released an aggressive plan to address the state’s troubled waters and suspended two elected officials.
Quote of the week
“I believe the rule of law is society’s sacred bond. When it is trampled, we all suffer. For the Groveland Four, the truth was buried. The perpetrators celebrated. But justice has cried out from that day until this.” — Gov. DeSantis, after pardoning Ernest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee, who were known as the Groveland Four.