The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday heard the controversial case surrounding Orlando-area State Attorney Aramis Ayala, a Democrat, whose refusal to seek the death penalty in two dozen murder cases has triggered a clash between her and Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
The case centers on whether Scott had the constitutional authority to remove Ayala from 24 murder cases after she refused to seek capital punishment in any of them, the Associated Press reported.
Ayala first made headlines after she announced in March, less than three months into her term in office, that she would not seek the death penalty for Markeith Loyd, who the state alleges killed his pregnant ex-girlfriend and Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton. After announcing that she would not seek capital punishment for the cop killing, Ayala doubled down, saying that she would not seek the death penalty in any of the cases in Florida's 9th circuit.
The state prosecutor argued that the death penalty is costly, inhumane, and drags on for years.
Ayala's move received praise from abolitionist groups like the ACLU of Florida that oppose capital punishment. But it was blasted by proponents of the death penalty, and shortly after her announcement, Scott removed Ayala from the Lloyd case and more than 20 others.
"State Attorney Ayala's complete refusal to consider capital punishment for the entirety of her term sends an unacceptable message that she is not interested in considering every available option in the fight for justice," Scott said at the time.
Ayala responded in kind, filing a lawsuit against Scott and State Attorney Brad King, who Scott had designated to replace Ayala on the 24 cases. She also a filed a motion with the Florida Supreme Court, asking it to establish who had authority to determine who was responsible for the cases.
"All State Attorney Ayala wants is the ability to seek justice for her community in the best way that she knows based on facts and data," said Roy Austin, Ayala's lawyer. "We are asking the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court in Orlando to ensure the integrity and independence of the justice system as both federal and state law require."
On Wednesday, Austin and Florida Solicitor General Amit Angarwal appeared before Florida's Supreme Court to make their respective cases.
Angarwal defended Scott's move, arguing that it extended from his constitutional prerogative to ensure that laws are enforced. In Ayala's case, the law "can't be enforced. It's like that law has been nullified," Angarwal said.
The court is split between three liberal justices, three conservatives, and one moderate. Even the liberals seemed to find Ayala's refusal to consider capital punishment on a case-by-case basis suspect.
"That's my concern, is that we are really taking the death penalty off the table," said Democrat-appointed Justice Barbara Pariente. "She didn't run on that platform, and yet she's made this announcement after. Isn't there something that allows the governor in that situation to say, 'You know, I have good and sufficient reason to remove you from those death penalty cases.'"
"This is not, to me, a conflict of interest kind of issue," said Democratic appointee Fred Lewis. "This is 'I'm not going to follow the law as written on the books of the state of Florida.'"
Ayala's lawyer argued that the decision about what sentences she would or would not pursue was beyond Scott's purview.
"We have to separate sentencing from whether or not we're charging. Sentencing, I would note, is a quasi-judicial function which the governor cannot intervene on," he said.
"There are no Florida statutes that required [me] to seek the death penalty,"Ayala told reporters after the conclusion of the hearing. "There was no blueprint for me to follow. I did what I believed was proper under Florida law and no laws have been violated."