FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Governor Rick Scott had the authority to reassign a prosecutor’s death penalty cases after she refused to pursue capital punishment for any defendants.
Aramis Ayala, a Democrat who took office in January, sued the Republican governor this spring over his decision to take her off two dozen murder cases.
In a 5-2 decision, justices said Ayala’s blanket policy was “at best, a misunderstanding of Florida law.”
Scott was quick to show he was pleased with the ruling against the Orlando-based prosecutor.
“Today’s ruling is a great victory for the many victims and families whose lives have been forever changed by ruthless, evil acts of crime,” the governor said in a statement.
Scott added that Ayala “unilaterally decided to not stand on the side of victims and their families, which is completely sickening.”
Ayala, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, in a statement Thursday suggested that a “death penalty review panel” of seven assistant state attorneys in her office evaluate first-degree murder cases. This would allow, she said, her office to take back the 29 such cases Scott has reassigned to Brad King, state attorney for an adjacent judicial circuit.
Scott rejected Ayala’s proposal early Thursday evening, saying her proposal for a panel inside her office “leaves too much room for interpretation,” according to a statement from the governor’s spokesman, John Tupps.
Unless Ayala recants her statement not to seek the death penalty, none of the cases will be returned to her office, Tupps said.
“State Attorney Ayala needs to make it clear that her office will seek the death penalty as outlined in Florida law, when appropriate,” Tupps said.
The state’s top court heard oral arguments on the case in June. At the time, the attorney who represented Ayala, Roy Austin of Washington, D.C., said he would pursue the case in federal court if he lost in Florida.
Ayala in March cited “legal chaos” surrounding Florida’s death penalty system as her reason for not pursuing the execution of Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing an Orlando policewoman, or anyone suspected in a homicide.
In March, Scott removed Ayala by executive order from murder cases under her control.
Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Dan Grebler and Grant McCool