TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida Gov. Rick Scott's power to strip a prosecutor of murder cases because she won't seek the death penalty was tested Wednesday before the state Supreme Court.
State Attorney Aramis Ayala's lawyer asked the court to block Scott from assigning her 24 murder cases to a neighboring prosecutor.
Justices heard arguments Wednesday in the dispute that began in March when Channel 9 broke that Ayala wouldn't seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd -- who is charged with the fatal shooting of Orlando police Lt. Debra Clayton -- or any other death case.
Scott said he reassigned the cases to State Attorney Brad King because Ayala wasn't following Florida law. Ayala argues that Scott doesn't have the right to take the cases from her because she's independently elected.
Ayala sued Scott, claiming that he abused his authority by reassigning the cases. Justices scrutinized her attorney's arguments Wednesday.
"Your honor, respectfully, there is nothing in Florida law that requires State Attorney Ayala to seek the death penalty," Roy Austin, Ayala's attorney, said during the hearing.
Hear Ayala's attorney's reaction to the hearing below:
"This is not a question about seeking the death penalty," Justice R. Fred Lewis said. "This is a question of following the statute and applying the death penalty. You may end up with a death penalty and others not."
Austin said Wednesday that Ayala had the authority to prosecute cases however she pleased.
He likened her decision to not seek the death penalty to other expensive cases in which prosecution is left up to a prosecutor's discretion, like fraudulent checks or small amounts of marijuana possession.
Austin said a win for Scott would be unprecedented because the state's highest office would have unfettered abilities to meddle with an independent justice system.
Watch the full hearing below:
The court will have to balance a desire to ensure that justice for murder suspects is consistent statewide with the need of keeping the governor in check.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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