With five openings to fill, Trump has opportunity to reshape federal bench in South Florida

The next generation of federal judges in South Florida — aiming to fill five openings on the bench — will soon be picked by President Donald Trump.

The unprecedented number of vacancies will give Trump the opportunity to reshape the federal court in the Southern District of Florida.

A panel of influential power brokers appointed by both U.S. senators in Florida recently pared down the list of 45 initial applicants to just 10. U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bill Nelson, a Democrat, will interview them and recommend all 10 or just five to the president.

The list of finalists, chosen from 24 applicants who qualified for interviews last week with the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission, includes nine men and one woman. Seven of the finalists are currently serving on the state circuit court, mostly in Miami-Dade County, and three are current or former federal prosecutors in Miami— including the acting U.S. attorney. Only two finalists are from Broward County and none is from Palm Beach County.

Not everyone is pleased with the line-up of finalists, noting the counties north of Miami-Dade are not well represented.

“The bench should reflect that diversity as well as diversity of gender, race and ethnicity,” said one Miami lawyer, a former federal prosecutor who has followed the nominating process but does not want to be identified. “There also needs to be diversity of legal experience before taking the bench. The bench would benefit from lawyers with substantial civil trial experience, who have represented actual clients who have problems that need to be heard.”

The South Florida finalists are: Acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg and former federal prosecutors Roy Altman and Melissa Visconti; Miami-Dade circuit judges Antonio Arzola, Peter Lopez, Rodolfo Ruiz, Rodney Smith and John Thornton; and Broward circuit judges David Haimes and Raag Singhal.

Under the nominating commission’s rules, the two Florida senators could also veto one of the 10 finalists and add one of their choice from the initial applicants. There is lingering tension between Rubio and Nelson over Rubio’s blocking President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mary Barzee Flores for a federal judgeship during the confirmation process last year.

The vacancies in the Southern District of Florida, which extends from Key West to Fort Pierce, were caused by five current federal judges who decided to assume senior status, taking on lighter case loads before full retirement.

Altogether, there are 13 U.S. district court judges and 10 senior judges in South Florida.

The high number of federal judicial openings in the region is rare. There are almost 120 federal judicial openings nationwide — more than 15 percent of the total number of judges— for Trump to fill after being in office for one year.

In the meantime, while Rubio, Nelson and Trump decide the fate of the 10 South Florida finalists in the coming months, the nominee for U.S. attorney in Miami has still not been named by the president.

For that post, Rubio bypassed the longstanding process of using the 35-member Federal Judicial Nominating Commission in South Florida to recommend candidates. So far, none of his picks for U.S. attorney in Miami has panned out.

His latest recommendation for the position, Ariana Fajardo, a Miami-Dade circuit judge in family court who had worked as a state prosecutor, didn’t pass muster with the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions and the White House, according to sources familiar with the process.

Rubio’s office did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Back in the spring, Rubio’s first choice for U.S. attorney was John Couriel, who formerly worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami. But Couriel was quoted in a news story saying he voted for former Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential election, undermining his future bid for the U.S. attorney’s position.

Rubio also recommended Jose Felix Diaz, a former state representative from Miami who recently lost a bid for a vacant state Senate seat. A land-use attorney, Diaz has been making the rounds again in pursuit of the U.S. attorney’s job, according to sources.

Whoever is nominated and approved by the U.S. Senate would eventually succeed Acting U.S. Attorney Greenberg, who in March automatically replaced Wifredo Ferrer, a Democrat who joined the Holland & Knight law firm.