By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Continuing to mold a conservative Florida Supreme Court, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday named Meredith Sasso to succeed former Justice Ricky Polston, who stepped down in March.
Sasso, of Orlando, has served as a state appeals-court judge since 2019 and is chief judge of the Lakeland-based 6th District Court of Appeal. Her previous positions included chief deputy general counsel for former Gov. Rick Scott.
With the pick, DeSantis has appointed five of the seven Supreme Court members, as the court has become dramatically more conservative since the Republican governor took office in January 2019.
“I am proud to appoint Judge Meredith Sasso to the Florida Supreme Court because her fidelity to the Constitution will help preserve freedom in our state for generations to come,” DeSantis said in a prepared statement.
Since Polston announced his resignation, speculation had swirled about Sasso as a potential successor. Along with serving in the Scott administration, she has been active in The Federalist Society, a conservative group that has played a key role in state and federal judicial appointments.
In her application for the Supreme Court seat, Sasso wrote that while working in the executive branch of government, she “gained an informed appreciation for the separation of powers.”
“Appropriate deference to coordinate branches is not a matter of courtesy; it is essential for the people’s chosen representatives to operate,” Sasso wrote. “Likewise, judicial decisions are not the only available solution to problems. When judges step outside their role, they often justify it by claiming an altruistic purpose of correcting a perceived injustice. But as judges, we should honor both our defined role and the overall system in which we operate.”
The Florida Justice Reform Institute, a legal group that advocates on issues such as limiting lawsuits against businesses, praised the appointment. William Large, the organization’s president, issued a statement that said the pick continued DeSantis’ efforts to carry out a promise to reshape the Supreme Court.
“The governor’s appointment of Meredith Sasso to the Florida Supreme Court cements this promise of appointing justices with a proven record of embracing textualism and the notion that the courts should interpret our laws, not write them.” Large said.
Sasso will join Chief Justice Carlos Muniz and Justices John Couriel, Jamie Grosshans and Renatha Francis as DeSantis appointees on the court. Justices Charles Canady and Jorge Labarga were appointed by then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.
Before DeSantis took office, the Supreme Court had a generally liberal majority — much to the frustration of state Republican leaders and business groups. But three longtime justices, Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, left the court in early 2019 because of a mandatory retirement age, allowing DeSantis to make appointments.
Polston, another Crist appointee, was usually part of a conservative majority, so it is unclear how much Sasso will affect the ideology of the court. Labarga is the only remaining justice from the more-liberal previous majority.
After Polston announced his resignation, three candidates, including Sasso, initially applied to succeed him. But the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission extended a deadline and drew 15 applicants.
The commission forwarded the names of six finalists to DeSantis. In addition to Sasso, the finalists were 6th District Court of Appeal Judges Joshua Mize, Jared Smith and John Stargel, Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Thomas Palermo and 20th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Thomas McHugh.
Sasso became a judge on the 5th District Court of Appeal in 2019 and shifted to the newly created 6th District Court of Appeal this year after a reorganization of the appellate-court system.
In her application, Sasso gave examples of opinions she had written, including a 2020 opinion about the dismissal of a former church employee that Sasso described as testing “the reach of secular judicial power.” Sasso’s opinion rejected a lawsuit alleging breach of an employment agreement, finding that what is known as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” left the issue to church authorities.
“The case is significant because it demonstrates that a secular court’s only legitimate role in resolving disputes related to religious doctrine is to ensure those disputes are committed to religious authorities,” Sasso wrote in a description of the case.
Sasso has ties to Grosshans, who also served on the 5th District Court of Appeal before being appointed to the Supreme Court in 2020. Sasso spoke at a Supreme Court investiture ceremony for Grosshans in 2021, according to Sasso’s application.
Sasso, who grew up in Tallahassee, received bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Florida. Her paternal grandparents left Cuba in 1953, according to the application.
After stepping down from the Supreme Court, Polston became general counsel of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. He had served on the Supreme Court since 2008.