Gov. Ron DeSantis has already reshaped the Florida Supreme Court, replacing all Democratic appointees with his own.
Now he’s moving on to one of the most obscure, but powerful, group of judges in the state.
On Tuesday, DeSantis and the Cabinet chose one of his lawyers to be the new chief judge of the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings, whose 29 judges function as the public’s check on state agencies and boards.
The lawyer, John MacIver, passed the Bar seven years ago, has virtually no experience in the courtroom and is already talking about stripping powers the judges have held for more than 40 years.
Elected officials and former judges are calling him unqualified to lead a group of jurists who decide some of the most hot-button political issues in the state.
If the Senate confirms MacIver, 45, he would be just the fifth chief judge in the 44-year history of the division.
It was created by the Legislature to give the public “a fair, impartial, competent forum in which the citizen can challenge what the state government is trying to do to them,” said Chris Bentley, the division’s second chief judge.
Before 1975, if someone wanted to challenge a rule imposed by a state agency, or challenge having their license suspended by a state board, they had to appeal directly to the agency or board. Unsurprisingly, the agency and board nearly always won.
Administrative law judges instead function as neutral arbiters, ruling on everything from whether a nuclear power plant can be built to whether a doctor should lose a license for killing a patient during surgery.
Their rulings have multi-billion-dollar impacts to companies and a priceless impact on the environment.
When the Department of Transportation awarded the state’s SunPass contract to Conduent State & Local Solutions, for example, Conduent’s competitors appealed the decision to an administrative judge. (The judge ruled in favor of the department.)
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat on the Cabinet, rejected MacIver and another applicant who didn’t have much more experience.
“Neither of these candidates rise to the level of what we consider necessary for the chief administrative law judge,” she said.
Former administrative law judge Michael Parrish, who served between 1984 and 2006, agreed.
“He does not appear to have anywhere near the qualifications to hold that position,” Parrish said.
He later put it more bluntly: “He has strong opinions that have no basis in fact or reason.”
Rulings from the Division of Administrative Hearings have angered politicians and the state agencies that work for them, and all three former administrative judges interviewed for this article had stories of governors and senators trying to influence them.
Former administrative law judge Jim York said he once got a call from someone in the governor’s office about a case. He couldn’t recall the exact circumstances but said he believed it was someone in former Gov. Jeb Bush’s office.
The caller “said, ‘I want you to give this person a new hearing,’ and I said, ‘I’m just going to pretend you didn’t make the phone call you just made,’ ” York said.
Over the decades, the Legislature has tried numerous times to give governors more control of the judges. The chief judge hires and fires the judges, who serve indefinite terms. Republican lawmakers in the past three years have twice introduced bills that would have given the governor the ability to hire and fire the administrative judges.
Bentley said it’s impossible to build a system that’s completely immune from political influence.
“As with any court, the true independence depends on the character of the judges,” said Bentley. He said he didn’t know MacIver.
The previous chief judge, Bob Cohen, was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 and was largely respected by attorneys and judges the Herald/Times spoke with. He had decades of legal experience when he was hired, but earlier this year, DeSantis’ top lawyer asked him to resign, he told Florida Politics.
With MacIver, DeSantis would have a man who shares his conservative judicial philosophy overseeing the judges who rule on the agencies DeSantis controls.
MacIver told the governor and Cabinet on Tuesday that he graduated from Northwestern law school in 2011, after a troubled upbringing involving drinking and being kicked out of the Navy.
After law school, he worked for a conservative think tank in Naples that advocates for welfare work requirements, then for the National Rifle Association trying to elect NRA-endorsed candidates in Central Florida.
He then joined the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation as a staff attorney, using that as a springboard to join the administration of Gov. Rick Scott in 2015.
Among his accomplishments under Scott: He “successfully coordinated Governor’s effort to repeal over 1,000 unnecessary, duplicative, and overly burdensome administrative rules,” he wrote on his resume.
DeSantis kept him on staff when he was elected this year, and MacIver now oversees the legal teams at seven state agencies.
By far the biggest case of his career was as one of two lawyers representing DeSantis in the removal of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel following the 2018 Parkland shooting.
His work on that case was blasted Wednesday by a Republican lawyer hired by the Senate. Attorney Dudley Goodlette said the governor’s attorneys failed to produce any evidence supporting their claims that Israel’s policies were inconsistent with Florida law, and that Israel should be reinstated.
Like two of the three appointees DeSantis has made to the state Supreme Court, MacIver is a member of the Federalist Society, the conservative group of lawyers and judges that Republicans have frequently tapped to fill the nation’s benches.
During his Cabinet interview, MacIver repeated some of the Federalist Society’s talking points.
“The best place where improvement can be made is in the culture of judicial philosophy within [the division],” he told the Cabinet, by “appointing judges who respect the separation of powers, respect the rule of law, follow the text of the law based on its common understanding so that everybody’s pulling from the same toolbox.”
York, the other former judge, interpreted it this way: “If this guy is talking about judicial activism, that just means to me that people are deciding cases somebody doesn’t like.”
Parrish, the former judge, said he reviewed MacIver’s résumé and found nothing “that would qualify him to make a decision about whether this person or that person would make a better judge.”
“The stuff he’s done looks like the kind of things that involve policy and agendas and persuading others and promoting others, rather than practicing law,” Parrish said.
MacIver was reluctant to recommend changes to the division, but he told the Cabinet he was “very skeptical” of the idea that administrative judges should have the ability to make final orders — orders that state agencies have to either obey or appeal to a different court.
The judges have had those abilities since 1975. Without those final orders, state agencies could simply ignore a judge’s ruling and do whatever they want.
“The system is worthless, in my opinion, if they are not final,” said Bentley, the former chief judge.
Tampa Bay Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.