Florida Prosecutor Sues Governor Over Death-Penalty Feud

(CN) – A prominent state attorney has sued Florida Gov. Rick Scott after he took her off all death penalty cases in her district.

Aramis Ayala, whose office covers Orlando and surrounding Orange and Osceola counties, filed a motion for injunctive relief against Scott in U.S. District Court in Orlando, hoping to reverse the governor’s decision to reassign her murder cases after she refused to seek the death penalty.

“Scott violated the Constitution of the United States, usurped Ayala’s authority and deprived voters in the 9th Judicial Circuit of their chosen state attorney,” the complaint states.

“The governor did not take this drastic step because of any misconduct on Ayala’s part,” the complaint continues, “but simply because he disagreed with her reasoned prosecutorial determination to not seek the death penalty under current circumstances.”

In addition to the federal injunction, Ayala also filed a writ with the Florida Supreme Court, questioning Scott’s authority to remove her. The suit argues the Florida Constitution only gives “the elected state attorney authority to decide how best to prosecute” cases.

Ayala raised the ire of Scott and other state Republicans after she refused to seek the death penalty for accused cop killer Markeith Loyd. A week later, Ayala held a press conference defending her decision to not pursue the death penalty in that case, or any others coming before her.

Scott swiftly issued executive orders reassigning 21 murder cases from Ayala’s 9th Judicial Circuit to state attorney Brad King, who is lead prosecutor for the 5th Judicial Circuit. King, a Republican, is also named in the lawsuit.

Scott also gave King the Loyd case and another murder case earlier this month for a total of 23 cases reassigned to the Ocala-based prosecutor.

In a statement, the governor’s office said Scott “stands by his decision to assign state attorney Brad King to prosecute Markeith Loyd after state attorney Ayala refused to recuse herself.”

During a press conference on opioid addiction on Tuesday, Scott told reporters Ayala’s decision “bothered me personally.”

In a statement sent to Courthouse News, the Governor’s Office reiterated Scott’s position.

“Markeith Loyd is accused of executing Lt. Debra Clayton, a brave law enforcement hero who was on the ground fighting for her life, and murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon,” the statement said. “Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis was also killed while actively searching for Loyd. As Governor Scott has continued to say, these families deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute Loyd to the fullest extent of the law and justice must be served.”

King did not respond to a request for comment.

Ayala has defended her decision to not pursue the death penalty, citing the “legal chaos, uncertainty and turmoil” surrounding the state’s death penalty statute.

In the last year, the capital punishment statute was twice declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and Florida Supreme Court, because the law did not require a unanimous decision by the jury. In one of the first bills to pass the state’s legislative session, lawmakers changed the law last month to require unanimous jury recommendations in death penalty cases.

In the federal complaint, Ayala states she was not “categorically refusing to ever seek a death sentence” and Scott’s executive orders “mischaracterized Ayala’s careful weighing of the circumstances.”

The lawsuit accuses Scott of violating Ayala’s rights as an elected official and her reputation.

“State attorney Ayala has done nothing wrong in exercising her prosecutorial discretion,” said attorney Roy Austin, who is representing Ayala. “The governor’s decision is one based on politics and not based on the law.”

Even the governor’s office has hinted that Scott does not have the authority to remove elected attorneys. Last year, an official in Scott’s office told a citizen they could not intervene in a case handled by Ayala’s predecessor Jeff Ashton.

“The state attorneys operate independently,” the official replied in an e-mail, “and as elected officials, they answer only to the voters of their individual jurisdictions.”

Scott also declined to remove an elected public defender accused of ethical violations and sexual harassment, according to a 2014 Florida Times-Union article.

“I am surprised that other prosecutors in Florida have not come to state attorney Ayala’s defense, realizing that the unconstitutional conduct of the governor impacts their ability to do their jobs as well,” said Austin of Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis in Washington D.C.

Ayala, who took office in January, was one of a handful of state attorneys across the nation financially supported by liberal billionaire George Soros’ political action committee last year. That money helped Ayala beat the incumbent state attorney in the Democratic primary. She coasted to an easy election win in November and became the first elected African-American state attorney in Florida’s history.

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