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Death penalty dispute between Fla. governor, prosecutor heard by state's highest court

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida Supreme Court scrutinized a prosecutor over her refusal to seek the death penalty in two dozen murder cases, and a justice suggested during arguments Wednesday that Gov. Rick Scott had the power to suspend the state attorney.

The case involves whether the Republican governor violated the state constitution by taking 24 murder cases out of the hands of Orlando-area State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who has said capital punishment is costly and drags on for years.

Attorney Roy Austin said Ayala, a Democrat, is an independently elected official who has the discretion to seek the death penalty or not. He said nothing in Florida law forces her to do so.

"All State Attorney Ayala asks of this court is that this court return those 24 cases to her and treat her the same and with the same respect that is given to every other state attorney in Florida," Austin said.

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In this Tuesday, March 7, 2017, file photo, Gov. Rick Scott makes the state of the state address to the joint session of the legislature in Tallahassee, Fla. State Attorney Aramis Ayala has fired a double-barreled response to Scott's efforts to take away almost two-dozen cases after she said her office would no longer seek the death penalty. AP Photo/Steve Cannon, File

It's a case seemingly without precedent that began in March when Ayala said she wouldn't seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd in the fatal shooting of an Orlando police lieutenant and Loyd's pregnant ex-girlfriend. That outraged those who felt that death is an appropriate punishment for Loyd, while death penalty opponents praised Ayala for saying she wouldn't seek the punishment in any murder case because it's inefficient and ineffective.

Ayala never mentioned her opposition to the death penalty in her campaign, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

"My duty is to seek justice, which is fairness, objectivity and decency," Ayala said in March, the paper reports. "There is no evidence that death sentences actually protect the public."

Scott reportedly asked Ayala to recuse herself from pending murder cases after the March press conference, and when she refused, Scott transferred the 24 capital cases to another prosecutor who supports the death penalty. Ayala then sued Scott.

Austin said he knows of no other case where a governor has stripped a state attorney of a case without their consent. Florida Solicitor General Amit Angarwal said there has never been a state attorney who had set such a blanket policy.

Angarwal said state law allows the governor to make sure laws are enforced. In Ayala's case, he said, "It can't be enforced. It's like that law has been nullified."

While the court is split between three liberal justices, three conservatives and a moderate, even the liberal justices questioned Ayala's position because she refused to consider the death penalty on a case-by-case basis.

"That's my concern, is that we are really taking the death penalty off the table," Justice Barbara Pariente said. "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.'"

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Markeith Loyd, suspected of fatally shooting a Florida police officer, attends a court appearance, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, at the Orange County Jail in Orlando, Fla. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP, Pool) Red Huber, AP

Justice Fred Lewis noted that under the state constitution, Scott could have sought Ayala's suspension. Scott resisted demands by a number of Republican state legislators to suspend Ayala, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

"This is not, to me, a conflict of interest kind of issue, this is 'I'm not going to follow the law as written on the books of the state of Florida," Lewis said before asking the governor's attorney why Scott didn't suspend Ayala.

Scott's attorney said "the state constitution does give the governor kind of a sledgehammer to deal with some very big problems" but he is instead choosing to use a scalpel here.

Ayala's attorney said she's made it clear that she will prosecute homicide cases and seek a harsh penalty. In Florida, the only two sentencing options in first-degree murder cases are life without parole and death.

"We have to separate sentencing from whether or not we're charging," Austin said. "Sentencing, I would note, is a quasi-judicial function which the governor cannot intervene on."

Scott, a Republican, has signed death warrants that led to 23 executions in his 7 years as governor, accoridng to the Tampa Bay Times -- the most of any governor since Florida reinstituted the death penalty in the 1970s.

As of Wednesday, Florida had 367 inmates on death row, the paper reports.

After the arguments, Ayala told reporters, "There are no Florida statutes that required (me) to seek the death penalty. There was no blueprint for me to follow. I did what I believed was proper under Florida law and no laws have been violated."