Judge T. Kent Wetherell – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida

A nonpartisan jurist with close ties to Florida Democrats, Judge Thomas Kent Wetherell looks fairly likely to receive a bipartisan confirmation to the federal bench.

Background

The son of former Florida State House Speaker T. Kent Wetherell, Judge Thomas Kent Wetherell II was born in Daytona Beach on August 26, 1970.  When Wetherell was ten, his father was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, where he would serve for twelve years, the last two as speaker.  For his part, Wetherell graduated magna cum laude from Florida State University and with High Honors from Florida State University College of Law.[1]

After graduating, Wetherell joined Hopping Green Sams & Smith in Tallahassee as an Associate.  Four years later, he joined the Florida Attorney General’s Office under Democrat Bob Butterworth as Deputy Solicitor General.[2]

In 2002, Wetherell became an Administrative Law Judge with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings.[3]  In 2009, Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to be a Judge on the First District Court of Appeal, where he serves to this day.

History of the Seat

The seat Wetherell has been nominated for opened on Dec. 31, 2015, with Judge John Smoak’s move to senior status.  Florida Senators Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, continued the use of a Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) to solicit recommendations for vacancies.  Acting on the recommendations of the JNC, President Obama nominated Philip Lammens, a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, to fill the vacancy.[4]  However, even though Lammens had the support of both Nelson and Rubio, he never received a hearing in the 114th Congress and his nomination was returned unconfirmed upon the election of Donald Trump.

In early 2017, Rubio and Nelson jointly recommended that Trump renominate Lammens and two other unsuccessful Obama nominees.[5]  However, while one of the other picks, William Jung, was renominated, Lammens was not.  Meanwhile, the JNC recommended Wetherell for the Northern District alongside three other candidates on November 16, 2017.[6]  Wetherell was nominated alongside another finalist, Judge Allen Winsor.[7]

Legal Experience

Wetherell started his career at the Tallahassee firm of Hopping Green Sams & Smith, where he practiced land use law, mostly representing developers seeking municipal approval.  He also worked as a lobbyist, handling matters related to the Administrative Procedure Act and the motor vehicle lemon law.

From 1999 to 2002, Wetherell served as Deputy Solicitor General under the newly created Solicitor General’s Office.  In this capacity, Wetherell handled appeals on behalf of the state, but also participated in trial efforts seeking to shield media attention from Dale Earnhart’s autopsy photos.[8]

Jurisprudence

Wetherell has served as a judge since 2002, serving as an Administrative Judge for seven years, and as a judge on the First District Court of Appeal for the last nine years.  In the former position, Wetherell handled licensing, permitting, and discrimination claims on an administrative level.  In the latter, Wetherell heard civil and criminal appeals from the Florida Circuit Courts.  During his time as an appellate judge, Wetherell heard approximately 6500 cases.[9]  Of these cases, Wetherell has been reversed three times.

In the first matter where Wetherell was reversed, he ruled that legislators were protected from being deposed in challenges to congressional reapportionment by legislative immunity.[10]  The Florida Supreme Court reversed over a dissent by Justice Charles Canady, finding that legislative privilege did not apply in the matter as legislative intent was essential for the lawsuit.[11]  In the second, Wetherell upheld an agency determination that the City of Miami could unilaterally modify a collective bargaining agreement with the police under the “financial urgency statute,” and the Florida Supreme Court reversed.[12]  In the third, the Florida Supreme Court reversed Wetherell’s ruling upholding a defendant’s convictions for use of a computer to solicit a minor and traveling to meet a minor.[13]

Political Activity

Wetherell has a fairly limited political history, including campaigning for his father in his state house campaigns.  For his own part, Wetherell has just one contribution of record, to Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Democrat-turned-Republican.[14]

Overall Assessment

Overall, Wetherell looks to be set for a comfortable confirmation.  His record shows little that is controversial and he is the product of a well-respected bipartisan commission.  Furthermore, given his ties to Florida Democrats including his father, Crist, and Butterworth, it is unlikely that he will draw strong opposition.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., T. Kent Wetherell II: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] Id. 

[4] Press Release, President Obama Nominates Eight to Serve on United States District Courts (Apr. 28, 2016) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/).

[5] Andrew Pantazi, Rubio and Nelson Ask Trump to Keep Judicial Picks They Sent to Obama, Florida Times-Union, Mar. 23, 2017, https://www.jacksonville.com/news/national/2017-03-23/rubio-and-nelson-ask-trump-keep-judicial-picks-they-sent-obama.  

[6] Alex Leary, Finalists Named for Federal Bench in Northern District of Florida, The Buzz, Nov. 16, 2017, http://www.tbo.com/florida-politics/buzz/2017/11/16/finalists-named-for-federal-bench-in-northern-district-of-florida/.  

[7] Press Release, President Donald J. Trump Announces Thirteenth Wave of Judicial Nominees, and Seventh Wave of United States Marshal Nominees (April 26, 2018) (on file at www.whitehouse.gov/thepressoffice).

[8] See Wetherell, supra n.1 at 37.

[9] Id. at 16-17.

[10] Fla. House of Representatives v. Romo, 113 So. 3d 117 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013).

[11] League of Women Voters of Florida v. Fla. House of Representatives, 132 So. 3d 135 (Fla. 2013).

[12] Headley v. City of Miami, 118 So. 3d 885 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013), quashed, 215 So. 3d 1 (Fla. 2017).

[13] Griffis v. State, 133 So. 3d 650 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014), quashed, 2016 WL 1664979 (Fla. Apr. 27, 2016).