Arguing Gov. Rick Scott had no legal basis to strip murder cases from her jurisdiction, Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala filed challenges Tuesday morning in both the Florida Supreme Court and federal court.
In complaints filed by her attorney, Roy Austin Jr. of Washington D.C., Ayala contends that she legally exercised prosecutorial discretion in deciding not to pursue death penalty prosecutions in the 9th Judicial Circuit. Ayala was not found by guilty of any misconduct.
Consequently, Ayala argues that Scott’s executive orders stripping 23 first-degree murder cases from her and reassigning them to another state attorney were only because he disagreed with her determination not to pursue death penalties.
The state action, seeking a writ of quo warranto, asks the Florida Supreme Court to vacate Scott’s 23 executive orders. Ayala’s petition cites Article V, Section 17, of the Florida Constitution, which declares that “the state attorney shall be the prosecuting officer of all trial courts in that circuit,” and contends that Scott has no legitimate grounds to overcome that.
Ayala’s federal suit, filed in Florida’s Middle District of U.S. District Court, seeks injunctive and declaratory relief against Scott in his official capacity as Governor of Florida and in his individual capacity, as well as against Fifth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King in his official capacity.
It argues that Scott denied both the will of the voters of the 9th Judicial Circuit and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“This is about justice and it’s about fairness,” Austin said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.com. “Ms. Ayala was elected to ensure the fair administration of justice in the 9th Judicial Circuit. That is what she plans and is going to fight for. That involves everybody, the people in her office, the families of victims, the community she represents.”
The moves set forth the anticipated monumental showdown that will determine both the breadth of the power of the governor and breadth of prosecutorial discretion of Florida prosecutors.
The federal suit asks the federal court to defer for now to the Florida Supreme Court, so the state will get the first crack at the issues, based on state law and the Florida Constitution.
There is no question that Ayala’s decision to not pursue death penalties ignited a political firestorm, with Scott, State Attorney General Pam Bondi, many other Republicans and many police representatives expressing angry disagreement, while a number of Civil Rights, faith-based and legal organizations and a handful of Democrats have sided with Ayala, a Democrat.
The key questions are: how far can a state attorney take the long-standing legal concept of “prosecutorial discretion,” which essentially holds that the prosecutor can decide how to prosecute cases; and how much power does the governor have to manage the affairs of state and local officials whom the governor determines have overstepped their authorities.
The federal suit stands ready to test the issues on a bigger scale.
The complaint charges: “Scott violated the Constitution of the United States, usurped Ayala’s authority, and deprived voters in the 9th Judicial Circuit of their chosen State Attorney when, under color of law, he removed Ayala from 23 pending homicide cases in her circuit and replaced her with King, a State Attorney who was not elected by voters from Orange and Osceola Counties.”
For the first time, the federal case argues Ayala did indeed consider the facts of the case of Markeith Loyd, the alleged Orlando cop-killer who is also charged with killing his pregnant girlfriend.
Loyd’s first-up on her agenda, and it was her refusal to pursue a death penalty that led Scott’s first action, taking that case from Ayala and reassigning it to King.
“After extensively researching the relevant law, as well as the facts of the Loyd case, Ayala determined that she would seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in Loyd’s case, not a sentence of death,” the suit states.
“Separately from building her case against Loyd, Ayala began formulating her office’s policy for handling death-eligible cases generally. She reviewed research showing that the death penalty: has no positive impact on public safety; is racially discriminatory; discriminates against the poor; is enormously expensive; leaves victims’ families in a state of uncertainty, and is imposed on innocent people too often
“She also met with victims’ families, reviewed files from other cases, and spoke with other people involved with the criminal justice system,” the suit contends.