Ayala: Scott had no authority to remove me from cases

By Bailey Myers, Troy Kinsey and Jerry Hume, Team Coverage
Last Updated: Wednesday, June 28, 2017, 8:50 PM EDT

In a lawsuit that could have an impact on death penalty cases across the state, lawyers for Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday took aim at Aramis Ayala’s argument that he doesn’t have the authority to take away her ability to prosecute those cases.

It’s been three months since Scott removed Orange-Osceola State Attorney Ayala from dozens of murder cases because she said she wouldn't seek the death penalty under any circumstances.

Ayala is suing Scott, challenging the governor's decision before the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee, in a case that could have a big impact not only in the Orlando area but statewide.

Ayala’s lawyers on Wednesday said she's exercising her “prosecutorial discretion” as an independently-elected state attorney.

But the governor's legal team told the court there's a big difference between discretion on a case-by-case basis, looking at the facts and making individual judgments, and what they call “blanket discretion,” or making a philosophical decision not to seek the death penalty in any case.

Florida Supreme Court justices on both sides of the political spectrum suggested that might not be covered under the law.

“There's a world of difference between a discretionary, flexible prosecutorial guideline that keeps open the possibility that a statute could be applied in some set of circumstances, on the one hand, and the across-the-board policy that petitioner articulated here, which effectively takes the death penalty off the books with respect to the Ninth Judicial Circuit,” Florida Solicitor General Amit Agarwal said.

Ayala's lawyers also argue that the state's death penalty statutes don't prevent prosecutors from seeking another sentence — such as life in prison — instead.

She also contends that she was independently elected by voters, and removing her from cases in her district could undermine the entire justice system in Florida. Attorneys for Scott disagree, saying Ayala’s blanket decision — refusing to not seek the death penalty — sets a dangerous precedent.

"While she is independently elected, in her capacity as a prosecutor, when she’s making those decisions, she’s exercising executive power and under the Florida state constitution, the governor is the chief executive of the state," said Barry University assistant professor Michael Morley, who is not involved in the case. "Ultimately, the governor has the responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, included laws governing the death penalty and the circumstances under which it’s available."

The battle started in March, when Ayala announced she would no longer seek the death penalty in any cases in her district. That included the case against Markeith Loyd, accused of killing a pregnant woman and an Orlando police lieutenant.

After that, Scott removed Ayala from not just the Loyd case, but 21 other high-profile murder cases.

The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling could have life-or-death implications. The decision will determine whether there will be more death penalty cases — or none at all.

Ayala has also sued Scott in federal court, but that’s on hold until the Florida Supreme Court lawsuit is resolved, which could take months.

Judge: Ayala v. Scott has enormous repercussions

From a judge's perspective, the Ayala v. Scott Supreme Court case will have incredible repercussions no matter what the justices rule on.

Retired Judge O.H. Eaton watched the Supreme Court proceedings Wednesday and said this case is crucial. 

Eaton served on the 18th Judicial Circuit Court bench for 24 years, training state and federal judges on capital cases

"This court case has to do with who has the authority to do what," Eaton said Wednesday.

Although it's unclear who the Supreme Court justices will side with, Eaton says the debate over the prosecutor's decision on the death penalty could determine how State Attorneys prosecute cases throughout the state.

"Assuming they rule in favor of the governor in this case, that means that the governor has the authority to interfere with individual cases as they are assigned to prosecutors -- elected prosecutors," Eaton said.

Although the case has made it all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, Eaton says he doesn't think it will end there.

"The decision, no matter what it is, may call for legislation, I think this is just the beginning. We are going to have Round Two once a decision is made," Eaton said.