Intensifying an already emotionally and racially charged debate, the Republican-dominated state House intends to file a friend-of-the-court brief backing Gov. Rick Scott's ouster of a Central Florida state attorney from nearly two dozen death-penalty cases.
"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 Thursday.
The Florida Supreme Court on Monday granted the House's request to take part in the case, in a role known as "amicus curiae," in support of Scott, but cautioned lawmakers "to file brief only in support of" the governor.
Aramis Ayala sued Scott because the governor stripped the prosecutor of 23 death penalty cases after she announced she would not seek capital punishment in any cases — including the high-profile case of accused police-killer Markeith Loyd.
Ayala, who unseated former State Attorney Jeff Ashton last year in the circuit made up of Orange and Osceola counties, said she based her decision on research that shows the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, is racially discriminatory, is costly, leaves the families of victims in limbo for too long and is imposed on innocent people too often.
Scott's removal of Ayala has drawn heavy criticism from African-American lawmakers and sparked outrage from national groups, such as the Advancement Project and Color of Change, which filed their own friend-of-the-court brief supporting Ayala — the state's first black elected state attorney — last week.
Sen. Perry Thurston, chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, said that he and others intend to file their own friend-of-the-court brief before Friday's deadline for submissions.
Thurston, a lawyer, condemned the House for seeking to take part in the case.
"I think it is overreach on their behalf, just like it's overreach on the governor's," Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said.
In contrast, Ayala's decision not to seek death sentences has elicited outrage from GOP House members from her region — as well as Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes — who have urged Scott to bounce Ayala from office altogether.
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.
Ayala and her lawyers — along with more than 100 other legal experts — argue that state attorneys have broad discretion in choosing whether to seek death in capital cases.
But her refusal to seek capital punishment exceeds her authority, House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls, a former prosecutor, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Monday morning.
"There is a stark difference between talking about prosecutorial discretion and what's she's doing. Saying she will never consider a lawful statute that's on the books is not discretion. It is ignoring the law," Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said. "State officers don't get to decide what laws they like and what laws they don't like."
Ayala's lawyers have argued that, while she does not intend to pursue the death penalty for any of the cases currently being prosecuted by her circuit, she has not ruled out the possibility of seeking capital punishment in the future.
But lawmakers like Sprowls are not mollified by her position, which he contends sets up an equal-protection issue for defendants in capital cases statewide.
"The important part there is this isn't an issue that is only important to the residents of Orange and Osceola counties. This is an issue that is important to 20 million Floridians," Sprowls said. "Allowing a state officer to set state policy undermines the will of the Legislature. And that's why we're filing an amicus brief in the case."
But Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said that it should be up to the voters to decide whether Ayala has fulfilled the duties of her office or not.
"That's how our separation of powers works. The executive branch doesn't get to exert authority over it,” Farmer, a trial lawyer, said.