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A Quick Explainer: What Florida Supreme Court Justices Will Consider in Ayala V. Scott Death Penalty Dispute

Roy Austin, attorney for ninth judicial state prosecutor Aramis Ayala speaks to reporters after oral arguments at the Florida Supreme Court. Photo: Renata Sago.
Roy Austin, attorney for ninth judicial state prosecutor Aramis Ayala speaks to reporters after oral arguments at the Florida Supreme Court. Photo: Renata Sago.

The closely watched dispute between Orange-Osceola state attorney Aramis Ayala and Governor Rick Scott over the death penalty made its way to the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday. Justices will now interpret whether it was legal for Scott to reassign two dozen murder cases from Ayala to another prosecutor.

Here's a short explanation of what's happening: 

  • Ninth judicial circuit state attorney Aramis Ayala filed a petition to the court after Governor Scott took two dozen murder cases from her office and reassigned them to fifth circuit state attorney Brad King. Scott’s decision to reassign those cases came shortly after Ayala made the announcement back in March that she would not pursue the death penalty in any case. At the time, she had wrapped up an investigation into the possible charging and sentencing of Markeith Loyd, the man accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon and an Orlando police Lieutenant Debra Clayton. Scott’s rationale was that Ayala was making a policy decision that was beyond her authority. Ayala, however, argued that Scott overstepped his authority as an elected official by taking power from another elected official.

What oral arguments were presented to the Florida Supreme Court justices? 

  • The solicitor general representing Scott in court, Amit Argwal, argued that Scott was protecting justice.

“No one individual in our society has the right to say, I’ve taken a hard look at this. I’ve considered all the available evidence. I’ve figured out this issue and I’m going to make a policy judgment that is blanket across the board,” said Argwal.

  • Meanwhile, Ayala's attorney Roy Austin described Scott’s move as something that had not been done in 100 years of Florida legal history—that one elected official had taken power from another. Austin argued that state law does not prohibit a state attorney from exercising the kind of discretion that Ayala did.

“Governor Rick Scott knows—and just as he told, repeatedly, citizens of the state of Florida---he does not have the authorization to override the prosecutorial discretion of an elected state attorney,” said Austin.

What were some of the questions the justices asked about each oral argument?

  • Their questions were over the legal phrase "prosecutorial discretion"—in other words, just how much power is given to a prosecutor. They questioned its limits. Justice Barbara Pariente asked whether Ayala’s decision would essentially remove the death penalty in the ninth circuit. But Ayala’s attorney argued that decision was temporary and based upon the current state statute which has been in flux for the past year. For The justices also asked about consent—whether Scott actually sought consent from Ayala before reassigning her cases. Typically this is done. Another question that came up was how much power a state attorney has in bringing about charges versus choosing sentencing; whether Ayala’s decision is any different from state attorneys in other circuits who tend to be on tough on crime for some policies and soft on others.
  • That’s an issue they will have to interpret: whether the law allows a prosecutor to interpret cases universally or whether it has to be on a case by case basis.

What was the scene like in court?

  • Every bench was full. And about fifteen minutes before the hearing, people were turned away. There were several groups, including some elementary and high school teachers and some university students.Rafael Zaldivar drove four hours from Orlando to see the hearing.  One of the cases reassigned from her to another prosecutor is that of Bessman Okafor, the man charged with murdering Zaldivar's son Alexander.“It was important because of my son’s case. You know, she possible could’ve derailed the execution of Bessman Okafor. You know, all she had to do was with the stroke of the pen and that would be the end of it,” said Zaldivar.

    He called for Ayala’s resignation.

  • Ayala told reporters after the oral arguments that she was pleased with how she was represented.“I violated no laws. There were no Florida statutes that I was required to seek 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,” said Ayala.

When can we expect a decision from the state Supreme Court?

  • It’s unclear. This is a complex case.

What impact has this case had so far?

  • This case has prompted the formation of crime victims’ rights groups for and against the death penalty. Just recently a group of conservatives announced opposition to capital punishment, citing it as fiscally irresponsible and an ineffective measure of justice.
  • This decision could set a precedent for sweeping changes across the state.
  • Since the dispute began back in March, lawmakers have voted to cut Ayala’s budget by $1.3 million. That kicks in July 1st.