ORLANDO, Fla. -- A Florida prosecutor fired a double-barreled response to Gov. Rick Scott’s efforts to take almost two-dozen criminal cases away from her after she said her office would no longer seek the death penalty.
State Attorney Aramis Ayala filed lawsuits Tuesday in federal court and with Florida’s highest court, challenging Scott’s ability to remove her from death-penalty cases in her district, which covers Orlando and its suburbs.
Ayala’s complaint with the Florida Supreme Court says Scott overstepped his authority and asks the justices to declare her the prosecutor in the cases that were ordered taken away from her. If the justices won’t do that immediately, the lawsuit asks them to stop the transfer of cases from her office until the state’s highest court decides whether Scott’s actions were proper or if they violated the state’s constitution.
Ayala’s federal lawsuit claims Scott’s actions violated the U.S. Constitution by disregarding the choice of Orlando-area voters who picked Ayala during last year’s election. The federal lawsuit also said Ayala’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated by the governor’s orders.
“Earlier in her career as an Assistant State Attorney, Ayala had been willing to seek a death sentence in an appropriate case, and she held that belief throughout her campaign for State Attorney,” the federal complaint said. “However, although Florida law grants State Attorneys the authority to seek the death penalty in first-degree murder cases where aggravating factors are present, neither the Florida Constitution nor the Florida Criminal Statutes require them to do so.”
Ayala’s attorney, Roy Austin, was asking the federal court to temporarily freeze any action on the complaint until the Florida Supreme Court lawsuit is resolved.
Austin is a high-profile, Washington-based addition to Ayala’s fight against the governor. Austin was a former deputy assistant to President Obama for the White House’s office of urban affairs and worked as a deputy assistant general in the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division.
Austin called the governor’s actions “unprecedented.”
“While this is absolutely a Florida case, regarding the Florida Constitution, the implications for prosecutors around the country can’t be ignored,” Austin said in an interview. “If a governor can step in and replace the judgment of an elected prosecutor in Florida, then all prosecutors need to be concerned about prosecutorial discretion. It has national implications if the governor is allowed to conduct this unconstitutional conduct.”
During last year’s election Ayala received more than $1 million in support from a Washington-based political action committee with ties to liberal Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros.
Ayala, Florida’s first African-American state attorney, has come under fire since announcing last month she wouldn’t seek the death penalty, in its current structure, against Markeith Loyd or any other defendant. Loyd is charged with killing an Orlando police lieutenant earlier this year. Loyd was also accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend late last year.
Ayala said she would consider changing her mind only if the death-penalty system changes so it doesn’t drag out for years and delay a sense of closure for victims’ families.
After Ayala’s announcement, Scott removed almost two dozen death-penalty cases from her office and re-assigned them to another prosecutor. That prosecutor, Brad King, also was named a defendant in the federal lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Florida lawmakers are moving ahead with plans to cut Ayala’s office’s budget by about $1.3 million.
The Orlando prosecutor’s fight has attracted support from civil rights groups and legal scholars from around the country.
When asked about Ayala on Tuesday, Scott said, “I just think every citizen deserves a state attorney that’s going to fully prosecute cases.”
Later in the day, when asked specifically about the lawsuits, Scott said he hadn’t seen them, but he repeated his opposition to her decision to not to seek the death penalty against Loyd.
“I’m going to think about the victim and the victim’s family,” Scott said.