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Orlando Sentinel

Hispanics Could Gain Seat

By Mark Silva

April 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

TALLAHASSEE -- A rare opening this summer on the state Supreme Court will offer Gov. Jeb Bush a historic opportunity to appoint the first Hispanic justice to Florida's highest court, Attorney General Bob Butterworth says.

Butterworth even has a candidate in mind: Roberto Martinez, a widely respected Cuban-born, Miami-area lawyer who once served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. Martinez, a Republican, also advised Bush in setting up his Governor's Office when he was elected in 1998.

"This will be a really important opportunity for the governor," Butterworth said in an interview Monday about the court's opening. "The person he appoints will speak a lot about this governor. It will be an opportunity to define his governorship."

Bush said he will "look forward" to getting nominations for the opening, adding, "It is one of the most important responsibilities of a governor."

Bush, seeking in November to become Florida's first Republican governor to win a second term, is courting an increasingly diverse electorate. Hispanics accounted for 16.8 percent of all Floridians, the largest minority population, in the 2000 Census.

The state's Supreme Court, its members appointed by governors and confirmed by voters every six years, long was an all-white, all-male bastion. The first black justice, Joseph Hatchett, was appointed in 1975. The first woman, Rosemary Barkett, was appointed in 1985. Both advanced to federal judgeships.

With the retirement of Justice Major Harding on Aug. 31, Bush will face his first opportunity to place his own stamp on the high court.

After his election in 1998 but before his inauguration, Bush joined his predecessor, the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, in appointing Justice Peggy Quince, now one of two black justices and two women seated on the seven-member court.

Harding's retirement will enable Bush to draw a replacement from any place in Florida. Because each of the state's five appellate districts already is represented by one justice on the court, Harding's vacancy will be a rare "at-large" appointment.

"This would be an excellent opportunity, since this is a statewide appointment, to place a Hispanic on the court," Butterworth said.

Butterworth, a Hollywood Democrat who will leave his own office at year's end, long has been identified as a candidate for the court. But, doubting that Bush will give his first appointment to a Democrat, he says he will not apply for the post.

The governor must draw a new justice from at least three and up to six nominees named by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. Bush appoints most of the nominating commission, and one of his recent appointments was Dean Colson, a Coral Gables attorney whose law firm employs Martinez.

Martinez, a litigator specializing in criminal defense for the Colson Hicks Eidson firm, served as U.S. attorney for Southern Florida from 1992 to '93. He was an assistant in the federal prosecutor's office from 1982 to '87.

The 48-year-old Republican is schooled in law and business. He served as general counsel for Bush's transition team after the governor's election. A native of Santiago, Cuba, he received his law degree from Georgetown and a master's degree from the Wharton Graduate School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Martinez was away from work Monday and could not be reached for comment.

He is not without competition among prominent Hispanic attorneys in Florida who might attract the nominating commission's attention.

In private practice, Cesar Alvarez, managing partner of the Miami-based Greenberg Traurig law firm, is viewed as a potential candidate. The state's appellate benches include few Hispanics, three on Miami's 3rd District Court of Appeal.

Al Cardenas, Havana-born chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and an attorney in Miami, says Martinez "certainly should be considered."

While refraining from naming names, he says, he will offer his own advice to Bush on how to proceed with the appointment.

"There are two or three things you need to look at," Cardenas said Monday, citing judicial philosophy and temperament as top concerns.

"No. 2, you want to find the best possible legal mind in the state," Cardenas said. "And No. 3, if you can make some history in the process, so much the better."

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