A selection panel is in Orlando Wednesday interviewing 15 applicants for the vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court opened when Justice Ricky Polston resigned in March. The person chosen will have to immediately be confronted with profound decisions about the future of our state.
Among the first cases up will be the future of abortion in Florida but, as profound a question as is in play with reproductive freedom, also at stake are basic privacy rights — or, as the Florida Constitution’s Privacy Clause puts it, the “the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion.”
The high court ruled in 1989 that that language protected reproductive freedom but this court, where Gov. Ron DeSantis will have placed five of the seven sitting justices, has abandoned precedents before and can’t be counted upon to embrace its privacy ruling.
DeSantis, who has his own ties to the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, have favored its members in the past for judicial appointments. The society’s mission is to mold young conservates for places in the legal establishment, including the courts.
This time around, 11 of the 15 applicants have declared affiliations with the Federalist Society.
The 15 candidates are largely from Florida law schools — with six of the group from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. None are from Ivy League law schools. (DeSantis went to Harvard law.)
We note that Polston is the second justice to depart the court within seven months, giving DeSantis the opportunity to replace them. But first, the applicants have to secure the support of the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.
(We also note that the JNC had to reopen nominations after receiving only three applications earlier this spring.)
We’re monitoring today’s interviews and expect to be back in the near future with a report about how it goes. For now, here’s a summary of the applications, as reported by the candidates.
Derek James Angell
Born in 1982 in Mountain View, Calif., Angell holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and a J.D. from the University of San Francisco School of Law. He joined the Federalist Society during law school and remains a member.
He’s a partner in the Orlando law firm Roper P.A. and previously worked for O’Connor & O’Connor, also of Orlando, largely handling civil defense for insurance companies and the city of Orlando at the trial and appellate levels. He’s handled personal injury defense, too. In one of Angell’s appellate cases, he helped block Planned Parenthood from opening a clinic in Osceola County based on a property covenant barring surgical centers from a medical park.
Angell applied for a seat on the Florida Sixth District Court of Appeal last year, unsuccessfully. “However, the chair of the commission reached out and recommended that I apply to the vacancy created by Justice Polston, and I am humbled to do so,” Angell wrote.
Angell reported net income last year of $208,210 and a house valued at $581,600 and $120,606.19 in investments and savings.
“I am a firm believer in the rule of law, individual liberty, and accountability, the separation of powers, and an originalist approach to statutory and constitutional interpretation,” Angell wrote.
He is married and did not declare an ethnicity.
Victoria Jacquelyn Avalon
Avalon was born in West Virginia in 1962. She holds an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Roanoke College in Virginia and a J.D. from the Stetson University College of Law. She joined the Federalist Society in 2018. She listed her ethnicity as white.
Avalon is an assistant state’s attorney for Polk, Highlands, and Hardee counties, running the appellate and civil litigation division and has worked on death penalty trials and appeals. She worked as a volunteer EMT during college and served stints as an Army MP and corrections and probation officer.
“My current practice is criminal appeals, criminal postconviction, government bond validation, sexual predator civil commitment, and criminal trial. Additionally, I serve as general counsel for the State Attorney’s Office, supervise prosecution of Baker Act civil commitment cases, and consult on public records issues” she wrote.
Avalon has applied for Polk County Court judgeships five times, for Circuit Court judgeships four times, and for the appellate bench five times.
She has belonged to the Federalist Society since 2018. She’s also belonged to the National Hot Rod Association, National Muscle Car Association, and National Rifle Association. She also dabbles in writing fantasy fiction and film production. She reported a 1985 arrest in Virginia for taking in a niece who reported sexual abuse by her stepfather; the charge was dropped. She was charged with a misdemeanor assault on an ex-husband who she says tried to grab her car’s steering wheel during an argument. That case, too, was dropped, she said.
Avalon reported a net income last year of $110,324 and assets of $314,780 including real estate valued at $163,639 against liabilities of $214,000.
She disclosed that she changed her birth name in 1994 (but it was redacted in her application) and again when she married. She didn’t mention any children.
Woody Robert Clermont
No address given
Clermont, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1970, is an assistant city attorney in Miami Beach prosecuting violations of criminal ordinances including drinking in public, camping in parks, indecent exposure, and misdemeanor assault. Between 2005 and 2009, he worked as an assistant state’s attorney in Miami and as a Medicaid hearing officer for the state. He has unsuccessfully applied for trial court appointments twice. He listed his ethnicity as Black.
Clermont declared a variety of undergraduate and advanced degrees including a 2002 J.D. from University of Miami School of Law. He twice joined the Federalist Society’s Miami chapter, from 2011-2012 and again since 2021; he also belongs to the Cuban American Bar Association, Haitian Lawyer Association, Gwen Cherry Bar Association, Wilkie D. Ferguson Bar Association, T.J. Reddick Bar Association, and Caribbean Bar Association.
He disclosed paying $143 to resolve a civil legal claim in Miami in 1998 and had another uncharacterized claim against him dismissed in New York in 2013.
Clermont sued Geico to enforce a $25,000 auto accident claim and extracted a settlement for the full amount. He is the divorced father of two adult children.
He declared a net income of $95,158 last year and $408,000 in assets, including a condo unit valued at $188,000.
“I believe that the totality of my experiences will allow me to bring a very unique experience to the bench. I will admit that earlier in my life, I struggled after high school academically due to the sudden and unexpected death of my mother during my late teenage years, when I first entered college. I struggled through law school as well, due to a marriage that would later end in divorce. After this time however, I began to thrive,” Clermont wrote.
“I am committed to the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.
Roger Michael Karam Gannam
Gannam was born in 1974 in Savannah, Ga. Today, he serves as assistant vice president for legal affairs for Liberty Counsel, which litigates on behalf of religious interests and is associated with Liberty University. Earlier, he worked for a law firm handling business, consumer, and pro-bono religious-liberty litigation. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of North Florida and earned his J.D. in 1999 from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He listed his ethnicity as white.
Gannam has litigated before a wide array of Florida and U.S. appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. He had a hand in persuading the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to sustain conversion-therapy bans in Boca Raton and Tampa, and represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky Court clerk who refused to marry a same-sex couple; a federal appeals court ruled she is subject to monetary damage and that case goes to trial in September. He’s represented churches challenging COVID-related restrictions on attendance. He won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the city of Boston for refusing to fly a Christian group’s flag over city hall.
A legal malpractice claim against him and the law firm he worked for was dismissed in 2020 for failure to prosecute.
He unsuccessfully applied for trial court positions in Jacksonville.
Gannam has belonged to the Federalist Society since 2020 and has been special counsel to the Florida Family Policy Council since 2012. He is a former member of the Christian Legal Society of Jacksonville and served on the Republican Executive Committee of Duval County in 2009.
Gannam is married with two children, one aged 22 and the other 17. He is the great-grandson of a Lebanese immigrant and grew up in a Navy family. His son survived leukemia as a small child. “As a justice, I would draw on this experience to make right decisions when the stakes are at their highest,” he wrote.
“My public interest litigation in constitutional religious liberty cases has been personally rewarding because it integrates my faith and my passion for the rule of law, which are central aspects of my life and vocation. But my faith-based associations have never required or tempted me to advance legal positions that are not supported by the law. As an advocate, I have never sought and would never seek to use the courts to misappropriate rights for my clients not provided to them by law.”
Gannam reported $145,000 in net income last year and just under $150,000 in assets against $5,884.94 in liabilities.
Bruce Edwin Kyle
Kyle has served as a circuit judge since 2007 in Fort Myers, the city in which he was born (he didn’t disclose a birth date but was admitted to the Bar in 1995). Before that, he served in the state House from 1998-2006 and as an assistant state’s attorney. He holds an undergraduate degree from Emory University and received his J.D. from St. Thomas University College of Law in 1994. He holds an additional advanced degree in tax law. He applied for Florida Supreme Court seats twice before, but unsuccessfully, plus for seats on intermediate courts of appeal.
One of the memorable cases he mentioned involved a juvenile with a history of domestic violence whose mother pleaded for him to be placed behind bars, but the law didn’t allow it. “He went home and killed his mom within 24 hours of the hearing. He was direct filed and is serving 30 years. I will never forget it.”
Kyle is married with three children.
He has belonged to the Sons of the American Revolution since adolescence.
“I will bring my working experience of the differences between the legislative branch and the judicial branch to the job. Having served in both, they each have their own function, as intended by the founders of our nation. I understand the judiciary’s role of following the law with great deference to the legislative process. The place to change substantive law is in the Legislature.”
Michael Thomas McHugh
McHugh is chief judge of the Twentieth Judicial Circuit in Fort Myers. He was born in Shelby, Ohio, in 1976, and graduated from the University of Florida and received his degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 1992. Before becoming a judge, he worked as an assistant state’s attorney and in-house lawyer for Allstate Insurance Co., both in Fort Myers. He’s been chief judge since 2006. He’d applied for trial judgeships twice before then-Gov. Jeb Bush placed him on the bench.
“I am an avid runner. I have run the Boston Marathon twice, New York City Marathon, Eugene Marathon, as well as numerous other marathons and races,” McHugh wrote.
He and his wife have three children, aged 16-24, with one enrolled at Emory University School of Law.
A plaintiff sued McHugh once after the judge refused to recuse in the underlying case, but the lawsuit got thrown out.
McHugh reported 2022 net income of $182,060 with nearly $1.5 million in assets and $40,000 in liabilities. He gave his ethnicity as white.
“I have a strong belief in the role of the judiciary and separation of powers. I am always cognizant of judicial branch’s obligation to look at the law in front of them and interpret that law by giving the words their clear meaning. I feel strongly that without the three branches of government staying within their lanes and exercising the checks and balances outlined in the Constitution our system of government does not work in the way it was envisioned.”
Miller was born in Panama City in 1979. She graduated from UF and earned her degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 2003. During college she was active in Republican Politics and the Federalist Society, which she rejoined in 2019.
Miller has worked as a prosecutor, a public defender, and mediator-arbitrator and now works as an assignment counsel representing criminal defendants. She also did a stint with Children’s Legal Services. She reported being disciplined while a public defender for arriving in court late but a superior acknowledged fault. She once missed a deadline in an appeal.
Miller applied 10 times previously for seats on the trial or appellate benches. She has worked as music director and teacher at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church and its school in Panama City. She is the divorced mother of a 15- and a 12-year old. Litigation involving a debt dispute with her ex-husband was eventually dismissed.
Miller declared $70,983 in net income last year and $500,000 in assets against $206,698 in liabilities. She listed her ethnicity as white.
She argues in favor of an originalist interpretation of the law.
“I have a breadth of experience in diverse areas of law. I have practiced both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney in both criminal and dependency fields. I am trained in several areas of native dispute resolution. I have experience in maintaining a position of neutrality through my mediation practice. I frequently rise to a level of leadership within both civic and professional organizations. I have often worked with difficult personalities and, generally, I successfully do so with respect, tact, and grace. Lastly, I have built my legal career and my life upon a passion for service to my community.”
Joshua Aaron Mize
City of residency redacted
Mize is a judge on the Florida Sixth District Court of Appeal, where Gov. DeSantis placed him in January. He graduated from the University of Florida and, in 2010, the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He was president of the UF Federalist Society and belonged to College Republicans and Law School Republicans. He’s been a Federalist Society member since 2007 and was president of the Florida chapter. He belonged to the National Rifle Association for 19 years.
Mize worked for a variety of law firms, including his own sole practice, before becoming a circuit judge in 2021. In private practice, he handled commercial, civil, and intellectual property matters for businesses and individuals in state and federal court. He applied three times for the trial bench and twice for an appellate seat before being chosen.
Mize’s wife is deputy general counsel at Blue Ridge Power, headquartered in Asheville, N.C. He listed his interests as “Hiking, Constitutional Law, Barbeque.” He listed his ethnicity as white.
“In 2012 and 2013, my wife and I paid estimated tax penalties of $23 and $15, respectively. These were the first two years that we were married and we slightly underestimated the withholding amounts for our joint income.”
Here’s how Mize described his income: “From Feb. 22, 2021, through June 30, 2022, my salary as a circuit judge was $165,509 per year. From July 1, 2022, through Dec. 31, 2022, my salary as a circuit judge was $182,060 per year. Since Jan. 1, 2023, my salary as a district judge has been $202,440 per year.” He listed more than $2 million in assets and $900,882 in liabilities.
Asked about his judicial philosophy, he wrote.
“First and foremost, I understand that the rule of law is paramount to the American system of government. In order to uphold the rule of law, courts must follow and interpret the law as it is written. Judges must say what the law is – not what the judges believe the law should be.”
He added: “If I am appointed as a justice on the Florida Supreme Court, I will never waiver from these principles. I will never allow my personal views to influence my application of the law. I will never engineer an outcome to comport with my personal preferences. I will never make a decision out of a desire to be popular or to follow public opinion. Every decision I make will apply the law as it is written.”
City of residency redacted
Nunez-Navarro is a circuit judge in Orlando, presiding in the felony division. Earlier, she was a circuit judge in Broward County. Before that, she was an assistant state’s attorney and criminal defense attorney in Broward County. She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Miami, and her law degree from St. Thomas University School of Law. She has served as an adjunct professor at the FAMU College of Law. Nunez-Navaro is Columbian American and was born in 1982 in Lake Placid.
Nunez-Navarro has been a Federalist Society member since 2017. She is married to a real-estate developer, her second marriage, and has three stepchildren. She listed her ethnicity as Hispanic.
“I enjoy being outdoors in nature and spending time at my family’s ranch, hunting and fishing with my family and brothers. I enjoy the arts and cultural events in and around Central Florida. I attend Bible study regularly. I am also an avid surfer, tennis player, and golfer. I enjoy traveling with my family and learning about different cultures and customs, and golfing around the world at historical golf courses.”
She is the self-published co-author of “Believe,” “a children’s book written to inspire children to chase their dreams and believe in themselves while also educating children on the proper and limited role of a judge.”
In 2015, Nunez-Navarro was dragged into a dating-violence case involving a law partner and her ex-boyfriend but was dismissed from that action.
She declared $160,593 in net income last year plus $4,500 for teaching, and $2.1 million in assets against zero liabilities.
“My brothers are ranchers, cattle farmers, and citrus growers in central Florida. I understand the significance of protecting our state, our separate branches of government, and upholding our Constitution. I am a proud Colombian American who believes strongly in the role the judiciary plays in our state and the duty a judge has to interpret and apply the laws as they are written.”
Thomas Nelson Palermo
Residential address redacted
Palermo is a Tampa native who serves in the family division of the circuit court there. His birth date is redacted. He holds an undergraduate degree from American University and a law degree from Florida State University College of Law. He also holds an LL.M. in banking and finance from King’s College, London. In college, he interned for Republican U.S. Sen. Connie Mack.
He was president of the Republican Law Student Association and Tallahassee Young Republicans. He served both as an assistant state’s attorney and assistant U.S. attorney, both in Tampa.
Palermo has belonged to the Federalist Society’s Tampa Bay chapter since 2019, as well as the Cuban American Bar Association and the Tampa Hispanic Bar Association.
He is married with a 13-year-old child and is active in the Boy Scouts. He listed his ethnicity as Hispanic.
Palermo declared net income last year of $128,521, assets of $1.3 million and liabilities of $489,868.
“For the law to be just, it must be something that a person can know in advance and therefore be capable of governing his or her conduct accordingly. When the judiciary determines the law based on preferred outcomes or personal preferences, it replaces the rule of law with the whim of the judge. At the forefront of the Florida judiciary, is the Florida Supreme Court. By its opinions, it reshapes Florida’s legal system and, by order, example, and leadership, it shapes the conduct of lawyers and judges.”
Bryan Edward Sarabia
Place of residence redacted but in Pasco County.
Sarabia was born in Dunedin, but his date of birth is redacted. He is an assistant who manages Clearwater State’s Attorney Bruce Bartlett’s New Port Richey office. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and a 2006 law degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
He unsuccessfully applied for trial and appellate judgeships one time each.
Sarabia directed a play at the Richey Suncoast Theater, either in 2009 or 2010. The only organizational affiliation he listed was as an elder of the Church of Odessa.
He is married with children aged 7, 10, and 13. He declared net income for 2022 of $122,566, assets of $461,751, and did not specify any liabilities.
“I am adept at evaluating legal issues, both common and obscure, and applying the law in the forms of the Constitution, statutes, and judicial opinions, and coming to the most just, reasonable, and legal decision. … I’m generally not influenced by what is trendy or popular legally or politically, but instead make decisions based on the law.”
Meredith Lee Sasso
City of residence redacted
Sasso, a Tallahassee native, is chief judge of the new Sixth District Court of Appeal in Lakeland. Before that, she served on the Fifth DCA and as a legal aide to then-Gov. Rick Scott, handling affairs for the departments of State, Education, Management Services, and Environmental Protection. Her birthdate is redacted.
“We were also involved with vetting judicial candidates and judicial nominating commission members. Often, the issues we dealt with were high-stakes, high-profile, and time-sensitive,” Sasso wrote. She played a hand in litigation testing whether Scott or Ron DeSantis would get to fill three Florida Supreme Court seats being vacated at the cusp of the transition between administrations. She helped win dismissal of that suit, filed by the League of Women Voters.
Earlier, Sasso worked in private legal practice.
She graduated from UF and earned her law degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 2008. She was a College Republican. She’s been twice certified to the governor for appointment to the Supreme Court, in 2019 and 2022, although he didn’t select her. She’s been a Federalist Society member since 2011. She’s married to attorney Michael Sasso but the number and names of her children were redacted. She declared $197,272 in net income for 2022 and nearly $1.7 million in assets.
Sasso lists her ethnicity as Hispanic. On her father’s side, her grandparents left Cuba in 1953. Her maternal grandfather served in the merchant marine during World War II.
“Stories like those of my grandfathers’ drive me. I am constantly mindful that the liberty we enjoy exists because of real people’s incredible sacrifices. And I am resolutely committed to fulfilling my judicial role in the manner for which it was intended: as an integral part of the structure of government created expressly to secure liberty for ourselves and our posterity.”
Jared Edward Smith
Smith serves on the Sixth District Court of Appeal and before that he was a circuit judge in Tampa, but voters tossed him after he denied an abortion to a 17-year-old orphan seeking a judicial bypass to parental consent. An appeal court ruled he’d abused his discretion, but DeSantis then placed Smith on the Sixth DCA.
Smith earned his undergraduate degree from Fort Hays State University and his J.D. from Washburn University School of Law in 2000. He’s been a Federalist Society member since 2016.
Smith also served in the Hillsborough County Court before becoming a circuit judge. Before that, he worked for a private law firm in Tampa, specializing in construction law and personal-injury defense, and as a JAG officer in the U.S. Air Force. In all, he applied eight times for appointment to trial and appeals courts. He clerked for a justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.
Smith and his wife are the parents of four homeschooled children.
He was sued in 2021 by the adult brother of a minor who objected that Smith had returned her to her father’s custody but the case was dismissed. A motion to dismiss is pending in a second case filed by a family law litigant.
He declared $155,281 in net income last year and $883,000 in asset against zero in liabilities.
Smith joined the Air Force shortly after 9/11. “I raised my hand and swore to support and defend our Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic,” he wrote.
“I will bring a strong work ethic to the Supreme Court bench as I have to the district, circuit, and county bench, combined with a strong academic background. I will also bring the ability to handle large volumes of cases as needed and to do so with care.”
John K. Stargel
Residential address redacted
Stargel, a judge of the Sixth District Court of Appeal, was born in Somerset, Ky. He is a University of Tampa graduate who earned his law degree at Florida State University College of Law in 1991. He was a founding member of the law school’s Federalist Society chapter and served as vice president. Stargel has attended the society’s annual statewide conferences for the past five years. He also belonged to the Christian Legal Society during law school.
He and wife Kelli Stargel, a former Republican state senator, have five adult children.
Earlier, Stargel served on the Second DCA and as a circuit judge in Barstow. He was a member of the state House between 2002 and 2006. Otherwise, he was a partner in the Lakeland firm Shelby, Medina and Stargel; was general counsel to Richland Properties LLC and assistant general counsel to W.S. Badcock Corp.; and was staff attorney at the Florida Tax and Budget Reform Commission. During college, Stargel progressed from an hourly job to management at Costco Wholesale. He was George W. Bush’s lawyer for Polk County during the 2000 election litigation. He served on the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission in 2017 and 2018.
Before winning appointment to the Second DCA in 2020, Stargel had applied for the court five times. He interviewed with the White House for U.S. attorney for Florida’s Middle District but didn’t get the job. He applied once before for a seat on the Supreme Court, in 2018.
Stargel was involved in a few lawsuits arising from real-estate holdings, auto insurance claims, and his role as a judge, including a 2006 challenge to his qualification to run for that office. They tended to be settled or dismissed. He disclosed net earnings of $160,688 last year but did not list assets or liabilities.
He promised to “exercise judicial restraint by deferring to the legislative and executive branches to make the laws, while the courts will interpret the laws and protect the rights of our citizens as set forth in our Constitution and statutes.
Stargel described growing up in modest circumstances in Tampa. Shortly before he started law school, his father was falsely arrested for kidnapping a child based on the word of a person wanted for crimes in another state. His father was cleared but the episode wrecked the family.
“I share these life experiences because I did not appreciate the many ways life experience prepared me to be a better judge. I didn’t realize how much over 13 years’ experience as a circuit judge prepared me to be a better appellate judge until I was there. These experiences do not impact decisions on the appellate bench in the same way they do when discretion and discernment is applied by trial court judges. They do, however, drive my desire to deliver justice in a fair, effective, and efficient manner to the citizens of Florida.”
He put his ethnicity down as white.
Scott Robert Toner
Toner is managing partner in Toner & Ramirez and president of Nature Coast Mediation & Arbitration LLC, both in Spring Hill. He mostly represents plaintiffs in personal injury cases. His place and date of birth are redacted but he disclosed moving to the Orlando area from New Jersey in 1984.
He is a graduate of the University of South Florida and holds a 2003 J.D. from Stetson University College of Law. Before opening his own offices, he worked for small firms representing insurance companies.
He serves on the board of directors of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast plus the Hernando County Republican Executive Committee and African American Club of Hernando County.
This is his first try for a judicial appointment.
Toner’s wife is also an attorney. He listed his ethnicity as white.
At age 16, Toner was sued for negligence over an auto accident.
He declared income last year of $566,650, assets of $4.3 million, and liabilities of $15,469.68.
“In my spare time, my primary hobby is reading. I enjoy science fiction and other light reading. As we live on a larger property and keep horses, I also spend time performing farm-type chores, including maintaining fences, mowing, and general repair work. I also often have woodworking projects, and I have made several furniture items for our home,” he wrote.
“The primary purpose of the judiciary is dispute resolution. Having a background as a trial lawyer, a mediator, and an arbitrator, I believe I can offer the perspective of a practitioner who has been able to succeed within the confines of the system established by the Supreme Court.”
In 2011, Toner’s father and his dog were killed by an uninsured drunk driver. The family filed a wrongful death suit but “I suggested to my family that we should dismiss the action if [the driver] would provide a written apology. He did write such an apology. As of the time of my submission of this application, I still have not been able to read the letter,” Toner wrote.