TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — Broward County Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci and a long-serving administrative law judge who successfully challenged a suspension this year for alleged insubordination have joined a list of candidates applying to become chief judge of the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
Antonacci and Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham were among at least 10 candidates who had applied as a 5 p.m. Thursday deadline approached to submit paperwork for the post. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet will appoint a chief judge from among the candidates.
Antonacci, who was named Broward County elections supervisor in 2018 by then-Gov. Rick Scott, has held a series of high-level jobs, including Palm Beach County state attorney, general counsel to Scott, and executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. He will leave his current position after the November elections.
The chief judge job opened when John MacIver, an ally of DeSantis, stepped down in June after the Florida Senate did not confirm his appointment during this spring’s legislative session. MacIver now serves as Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis’ general counsel.
MacIver’s resignation also followed a controversy in which Van Laningham received a five-day unpaid suspension this spring after he accused MacIver of making what are known as improper “ex parte communications” when reviewing an order in a case about a South Florida horse track.
The Van Laningham suspension was the first in the agency’s history and drew widespread interest in the legal community. But Van Laningham fought the discipline at state Public Employees Relations Commission, later spawning a case at the 1st District Court of Appeal about whether MacIver could be forced to testify in the dispute.
The legal wrangling ended when Van Laningham and the Division of Administrative Hearings, commonly known as DOAH, reached a settlement in September. Under the settlement, DOAH agreed to rescind Van Laningham’s suspension and pay the judge for the five days he did not work. Also, the division agreed to pay Van Laningham’s legal fees and costs, up to $70,000.
The settlement said Van Laningham and the division “have determined that their respective interests would best be served by completely resolving, compromising and settling the existing or possible disputes, disagreements and controversies between them without additional delay.” It also said the agreement “in no way constitutes any admission, stipulation or resolution of any issues of law or fact by any of the parties.”
DeSantis and members of the Cabinet on Sept. 22 gave 30 days for candidates to apply to become chief judge.
DOAH typically plays a low-profile — yet critical — role in deciding cases involving government agencies. Administrative law judges, who have employment rights similar to other state workers, oversee cases ranging from detailed disputes about state awards of multimillion-dollar contracts and regulatory decisions to challenges over sanctions on barbers.
Along with Antonacci and Van Laningham, other applicants include Administrative Law Judges Mary Li Creasy and J. Bruce Culpepper; Tallahassee attorney Colin Mark Roopnarine, a former general counsel of the Florida Office of Financial Regulation; Patrick Wheeler, a staff attorney at the Florida Supreme Court; and Tom Thomas, deputy general counsel at the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, according to resumes posted on the Cabinet website.
Other candidates are James D. Molenaar, an attorney who previously worked for Collier County Clerk of Clerk Crystal Kinzal; Jacksonville lawyer Anthony Paul Penoso and Winter Park attorney Elizabeth Renee Dilts.
MacIver’s selection last fall as chief judge created partisan friction. MacIver, the head of the Tallahassee chapter of The Federalist Society, told DeSantis and the Cabinet his goal would be to hire “the correct ALJs who have the correct judicial philosophy,” one that he called “apolitical.” The Federalist Society in Florida and nationally is perhaps the most prominent conservative legal organization.
But Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat on the Cabinet, said she opposed MacIver’s appointment because he lacked the experience for the post.
The Division of Administrative Hearings can “be a check on an overreaching executive branch — and checks and balances matter,” Fried said.
The Van Laningham controversy involving MacIver stemmed from two footnotes Van Laningham included in a March 13 recommended order in a case involving Calder Race Course Inc.
The footnotes said MacIver began reviewing judges’ orders and making comments about them before they were rendered. MacIver instituted the reviews shortly after his appointment by DeSantis and the Cabinet.
Van Laningham’s footnotes, which created a firestorm in legal circles as well as among his colleagues, asserted MacIver’s comments “are, or might be, ex parte communications prohibited by” a section of Florida administrative law. An ex parte communication generally involves someone discussing a case with a judge without the knowledge of each party in the case.
Van Laningham, who became an administrative law judge in 2000, said he was “erring on the side of caution” by exposing MacIver’s comments.
But Senior Administrative Law Judge Robert Cohen, who was Van Laningham’s supervisor, wrote that he was “shocked” by Van Laningham’s comments. The discussion between the chief judge and an administrative law judge “does not constitute ex parte communications contemplated by the Legislature,” Cohen, who has served as chief judge since MacIver’s exit, wrote in a March 19 memo to MacIver.
Two other administrative law judges recommended Van Laningham’s suspension, and MacIver approved the decision.