Florida Supreme Court Judge Criticizes "Worst Lawyering I've Seen"

Justice Raoul Cantero (pictured), recently appointed to Florida’s Supreme Court by Gov. Jeb Bush, criticized the quality of private lawyers handling the appeals of death row inmates, noting that some attorneys have botched cases, muddled and omitted key arguments, and generally performed “the worst lawyering I’ve seen.” He also seriously questioned Governor Bush’s effort to replace the state-run regional offices that handle death penalty appeals with private attorneys as a cost-cutting measure.

To date, lawmakers have closed one of Florida’s three Capital Collateral Regional Counsel offices. The state has registered 150 private lawyers to take over the cases formerly handled by that office, as well as to handle any overflow cases from the remaining two regional centers. Cantero stated that the minimal qualification standards for attorneys wishing to be listed on this registry have resulted in some of “the worst briefs that I have read.” He emphasized that an attorney familiar with a few burglary trials does not have the skills to replace someone devoted to the highly specialized death row appeals process, which takes years to master. Cantero noted, “I’m not sure we have enough quality lawyers out there that would be able to pick up the slack…. Some of the registry counsel have little or no experience in death penalty cases. They have not raised the right issues. Sometimes they raise too many issues and still haven’t raised the right ones. In arguments, they’re unable to respond to questions, or they don’t know what the record shows. They don’t have a real good understanding of death penalty cases…. For us to wade through the morass of baseless claims takes a lot of work for the justices and eventually leads to a lot of inefficiencies in the process. That takes a lot of time that we can be spending on civil cases, on other criminal cases, on important issues.”

Governor Bush is seeking to close all three of the state’s Capital Collateral Regional Counsel offices and to completely privatize appellate representation. Representative Joe Negron, a top-ranked Republican who supported closing the first regional center, stated that Cantero’s remarks would “carry a lot of weight” as lawmakers decide this spring whether to proceed with plans to close the remaining two offices or eliminate the privatization plan.

(Miami Herald, January 28, 2005). See Representation.