Prosecutor and governor to spar over death penalty in Florida's top court
Governor Rick Scott (Photo: Screenshot)

The legal battle between Florida Governor Rick Scott and an Orlando prosecutor he removed from two dozen murder cases because she would not seek the death penalty goes before the state's Supreme Court on Wednesday.


Aramis Ayala, a Democrat who serves as state attorney for the Ninth Judicial District that covers Orange and Osceola counties in central Florida, sued the Republican governor after he took the cases from her in April.

Ayala, the first black woman elected as a state attorney in Florida, has said the death penalty is not in the best interest of justice. She claims Scott is exceeding his authority, and she is asking the courts to give her the cases back.

Scott has said he believes Florida state attorneys should "prosecute individuals to the fullest extent of the law," including the death penalty.

On Wednesday morning, the Florida Supreme Court will hear 20 minutes of oral arguments each from lawyers representing Ayala and Scott.

Ayala's attorney, Roy Austin of Washington, has said Scott's removal of a state prosecutor is unprecedented in the United States. Florida Politifact, a partnership between the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, says there are no federal or state laws that require prosecutors to seek death sentences.

In court filings, Austin made clear that Ayala would proceed with her federal case against the governor if she loses in Florida's top court.

The seven-member Florida Supreme Court is not expected to rule on Wednesday.

Ayala took office in January for a four-year term. In March, she announced she would not seek the death penalty in murder cases.

At the time, her staff was building a case against Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend in December and an Orlando policewoman in January.

Her announcement prompted Scott to step in. The murder cases from Ayala's district are now being handled by the Republican state attorney for an adjoining district, with the help of some of Ayala's staff.

Scott in March signed legislation tightening Florida law to require a unanimous recommendation by a jury before judges can impose the death penalty.

The law is the state's latest effort to restart its death penalty process, which was put on hold last year after rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court in separate cases.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Chizu Nomiyama)