TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Arguments about Florida Gov. Rick Scott's power to strip a prosecutor of murder cases because she won't seek the death penalty were presented Wednesday before the state Supreme Court.
Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala is asking the court to block Scott from assigning her murder cases to a neighboring prosecutor.
It's not known when the state's highest court will rule on the matter.
The dispute began in March when Ayala said she wouldn't seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd, who is charged in the fatal shootings of an Orlando police officer and his pregnant ex-girlfriend, or any other death case.
Scott said he reassigned the cases because Ayala isn't following Florida law.
Ayala argues that Scott doesn't have the right to take the cases from her because she's independently elected.
Roy L. Austin Jr. argued on behalf of Ayala, saying that she has the discretion as an elected state attorney whether to pursue the death penalty.
"She's going to seek a very severe sentence when prosecuting," Austin said.
“Hasn’t she nullified the death penalty law in the 9th Circuit?" Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente asked later in the hearing, which lasted less than an hour.
Pariente also asked Austin to clarify whether Ayala made her decision based on the effectiveness and cost of the death penalty, as Ayala stated during a news conference earlier this year, or if she was looking at each case independently.
"It is both," Austin said.
"What did she say about the Loyd case?" Pariente asked.
"There is nothing in the law that says her discretion has to be based on a single case," he said, adding that the "controlling language" in the law says state attorneys are the prosecuting officials for all trials in their circuit.
"When you say that, it seems you're precluding any legislative oversight of the elected attorney, including conflicts," Justice Charles T. Canady said. "Why can't this be viewed as malfeasance?"
"(The state does not) have that case here," Austin said.
Justice C. Alan Lawson focused on the governor's ability, per state statute, to remove prosecutors from cases.
"Where does it say that he has to get someone else's permission to do this?" Lawson asked.
Austin said in the history of Florida, there's never been a case taken from a state attorney against their wishes, until now.
"We have to respect the rights of the voters to elect state officials," Austin said.
Several justices argued about DUI cases that were not prosecuted in South Florida and whether the state attorney there was removed against his desire.
Attorney Amit Agarwal represented Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi
"She's not willing to apply the current death penalty statute to any of the pending cases," said Agarwal, adding that no one person should be able to make a determination that nullifies the law.
Agarwal said Scott called Ayala after she announced she would not pursue the death penalty, giving her the chance to recuse herself.
“We don’t have a single case that the governor has ever exceeded the scope of his reassignment authority,” Agarwal said.
During Austin's rebuttal, Pariente said, "My concern is that we are taking the death penalty off the table. ... She didn’t run on that platform."
"What if she does not believe in war on drugs? Can she determine not to enforce drug laws?" Lawson asked.
Austin again stated that there is a difference between charges and sentences.
Ayala was at the courthouse, but Scott did not attend.
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