TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Cementing his push to remake the Florida Supreme Court, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday appointed a top official from the administration of President Donald Trump for the final spot that remained open on the state’s most important court.
DeSantis picked Carlos Muniz, who had been working as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The pick was unusual since the 49-year-old Muniz has never served as a judge, but he worked as a top attorney for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and was chief of staff for former Attorney General Pam Bondi.
DeSantis called him a “top flight intellect” and said his past jobs in Florida government gave him a “useful perspective.”
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“He really understands the separation of powers and he understands the proper role of the court,” DeSantis said during a brief news conference outside the governor’s mansion where he announced the selection.
Flanked by his family members, Muniz said he had a “solemn duty to set aside my own policy preferences,” but echoed the comments made by the governor.
“The role of a judge is to preserve the constitution, not to add to it or subtract from it,” Muniz said. “I believe strongly in judicial independence but judges have to earn that independence by their fidelity to the constitution.”
With the choice of Muniz, DeSantis has now filled three openings on the Supreme Court due to mandatory retirements. The Republican governor replaced three judges who frequently ruled against the GOP-controlled state government. Earlier this month, DeSantis selected Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa for spots on the court. Both Luck and Lagoa were judges on the 3rd District Court of Appeal.
With the three new justices in place, some Florida legislative leaders are already discussing pushing ahead with new proposals that may have been struck down by the state court in the past. GOP legislators have criticized the court in the past for decisions on everything from private school vouchers to abortion, the death penalty and redistricting.
Florida Democratic Party chair Terrie Rizzo immediately criticized the pick of Muniz, in part because there is no longer an African-American on the court with the departure of Justice Peggy Quince. The state judicial nominating commission gave DeSantis a list of 11 finalists and there were no African-Americans among them.
“From his appointment it’s clear that Ron DeSantis has no respect for the rule of the law, and is seeking to stack the courts with his political allies,” Rizzo said.
Muniz attended the University of Virginia as an undergraduate and got his law degree in 1997 from Yale University. He worked as deputy general counsel for Bush and also held a top post in the Florida House. He worked for Bondi for three years and emails reviewed by The Associated Press show that in 2013 he was included in discussions about student complaints alleging fraud with Trump’s namesake real-estate seminars.
AP reported in 2016 that Bondi personally solicited a $25,000 political contribution from Trump as her office was weighing how to respond to questions from the Orlando Sentinel newspaper about whether she would join New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in suing the billionaire businessman.
Emails showed that Muniz was copied on discussions about how to respond to the newspaper’s request for comment, though he did not actively weigh in. Those emails also showed Muniz did help direct Bondi’s public defense on the issue, including rewriting an October 2013 fact sheet distributed to reporters.
Though both Trump University and the Florida-based Trump Institute had stopped offering classes by the time Bondi took office in 2011, more than 20 consumer complaints had been filed by former students who said they were swindled.
Bondi eventually said she was unaware her staff had been asked about the New York lawsuit until a Florida newspaper columnist highlighted the 2013 donation from Trump.
Bondi has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and defended her decision to accept the contribution, saying her office never seriously considered suing Trump. Though Bondi’s office took no action against Trump, the president later agreed to settle the class-action case filed by New York and private lawyers, paying his former students $25 million in damages.
After leaving Bondi’s office, Muniz became a partner at the Jacksonville, Florida, office of a large law and lobbying firm. He defended Florida State University in a Title IX lawsuit filed by Erica Kinsman, a former student who said she was raped by quarterback Jameis Winston in 2012. Winston, who denied any wrongdoing, was never charged with a crime by police in Tallahassee, and the state attorney’s office declined to pursue a criminal case against him. In 2016, FSU agreed to pay Kinsman $950,000, the largest settlement ever for claims regarding a university’s indifference to a student’s reported sexual assault.