By The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court scrutinized Florida’s first African-American state attorney over her refusal to seek the death penalty in two dozen murder cases, and a justice suggested during arguments Wednesday that Gov. Rick Scott had the power to suspend the prosecutor.

The case involves whether the Republican governor violated the state constitution by taking 24 murder cases out of the hands of Orlandoarea State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who has said capital punishment is costly and drags on for years.

Attorney Roy Austin said Ayala, a Democrat, is an independently elected official who has the discretion to seek the death penalty or not. He said nothing in Florida law forces her to do so.

“All State Attorney Ayala asks of this court is that this court return those 24 cases to her and treat her the same and with the same respect that is given to every other state attorney in Florida,” Austin said.

It’s a case seemingly without precedent that began in March when Ayala said she wouldn’t seek the death penalty against Markeith Loyd in the fatal shooting of an Orlando police lieutenant and his pregnant exgirlfriend.

That outraged those who felt that death is an appropriate punishment for Loyd, while death penalty opponents praised Ayala for saying she wouldn’t seek the punishment in any murder case because it’s inefficient and ineffective.

Austin said he knows of no other case where a governor has stripped a state attorney of a case without their consent. Florida Solicitor General Amit Angarwal said there has never been a state attorney who had set such a blanket policy.

While the court is split between three liberal justices, three conservatives and a moderate, even the liberal justices questioned Ayala’s position because she refused to consider the death penalty on a case-by-case basis.

“That’s my concern, is that we are really taking the death penalty off the table,” Justice Barbara Pariente said. “She didn’t run on that platform, and yet she’s made this announcement after. Isn’t there something that allows the governor in that situation to say, “You know, ‘I have good and sufficient reason to remove you from those death penalty cases.’”

Justice Fred Lewis noted that under the state constitution, Scott could have sought Ayala’s suspension. “This is not, to me, a conflict of interest kind of issue, this is ‘I’m not going to follow the law as written on the books of the state of Florida,” Lewis said before asking the governor’s attorney why Scott didn’t suspend Ayala.

Scott’s attorney said “the state constitution does give the governor kind of a sledgehammer to deal with some very big problems” but he is instead choosing to use a scalpel here.

Ayala’s attorney said she’s made it clear that she will prosecute homicide cases and seek a harsh penalty. In Florida, the only two sentencing options in first-degree murder cases are life without parole and death.

“We have to separate sentencing from whether or not we’re charging,” Austin said. “Sentencing, I would note, is a quasi-judicial function which the governor cannot intervene on.”

After the arguments, Ayala told reporters, “There are no Florida statutes that required (me) to seek the death penalty. There was no blueprint for me to follow. I did what I believed was proper under Florida law and no laws have been violated.”

Florida’s death penalty has been in flux for the past year or so.

Executions in Florida ground to a halt last year after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges. The Florida Legislature responded by overhauling the law to let the death penalty be imposed by at least a 10-2 jury vote. The state Supreme Court struck down the law and required unanimous jury decisions for capital punishment. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill requiring a unanimous jury recommendation.

Ayala, who previously worked as a public defender and prosecutor, was a virtual unknown when she ran for state attorney last year. With an infusion of more than $1 million from a Washington-based political action committee with ties to liberal Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros, Ayala unseated the incumbent state attorney in the Democratic primary and became Florida’s first African-American state attorney.

In her campaign, she promised to listen to communities that hadn’t had a voice in the past. Given that Florida’s death sentence was in a legal holding pattern at the time, capital punishment never came up during Ayala’s campaign.

A host of civil rights activists and legal scholars have come out in support of Ayala. Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Florida House, and other state attorneys, have denounced her decision.

Ayala has also sued Scott in federal court, but asked it to wait until the Florida Supreme Court lawsuit is resolved.