Judge overseeing Nikolas Cruz death penalty trial sheds anonymity for national spotlight
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is a lawyer, a mom and a member of a political family. Now she may decide whether the Parkland gunman lives or dies.
FORT LAUDERDALE — Elizabeth Scherer has been a Broward County circuit court judge since 2012, but her tenure had been mostly unnoteworthy until she was randomly selected to oversee the trial of Nikolas Cruz.
Scherer could ultimately decide if Cruz, who pleaded guilty last year to killing 17 students and staff members and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, is executed or lives out the rest of his days in prison.
The process to select a 12-person jury for the sentencing phase of Cruz's case began April 4 and is expected to last nearly two months. The jury that is chosen can unanimously recommend to impose the death penalty on Cruz, who lived briefly in the Lantana area prior to the shootings, but it is Scherer who is tasked with the final decision if that happens.
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Cruz trial may make judge household name
No matter Cruz's fate, the trial is almost certain to put Scherer, 45, in the national spotlight. Court TV will broadcast live and 25 media outlets have been credentialed to cover the proceedings.
Scherer got a taste of what's to come during the first day of jury selection when her interaction with a potential juror, who claimed she couldn't serve because of commitments to a "sugar daddy," went viral.
Scherer's Instagram account — in which she identifies as a mom, circuit judge, FSU alum and equestrian — gained more than 1,000 followers overnight, and the comments section of news stories detailing the bizarre exchange were littered with countless posts from "admirers" referring to the judge's physical appearance.
The fact that Scherer is refereeing one of the biggest court cases in Broward County's history is a bit of an upset. Scherer told the Daily Business Review in 2013 that she had no interest in criminal law when she accepted an internship with the Broward County State Attorney's Office.
Six months later, she was hooked on the profession.
Scherer spent 11 years working as a prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office, including six in the Career Criminal Trial Unit, before she was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in December 2012 as a judge of the 17th Judicial Circuit Court.
Scherer didn't make much news as a prosecutor but her private life became public in May 2009 when her former husband, Anthony Mercer, was arrested in Fort Lauderdale on numerous felony charges while allegedly in possession of one ounce of cocaine, a pound of marijuana and prescription pills.
A day after his arrest, Scherer filed for divorce. The charges against Mercer, who has a daughter with Scherer, were dropped in August 2009 by the Palm Beach County state attorney's office, where the case was transferred.
According to several published reports, Scherer is now married to a Hollywood police detective.
Judge's father a longtime GOP operative in South Florida
Scott's appointment of Scherer to the bench wasn't without its controversy.
Scherer is the daughter of well-known Broward attorney William R. Scherer, a Scott donor and GOP operative who was a part of the legal effort on behalf of George W. Bush in the disputed 2000 presidential election.
In 2011, Scott appointed Scherer to the Judicial Nominating Commission, which helps governors fill judicial vacancies. The next year, Scott chose Elizabeth Scherer to replace retired Judge David Krathen.
Said Scott of Scherer: "Liz is committed to the principle that the judiciary must say what the law is, and not what it should be."
Scott was criticized for choosing Elizabeth Scherer over other potential jurists viewed as more experienced and deserving of the appointment. Even the South Florida Sun-Sentinel wrote in an editorial that "it’s believed (Scherer) got the appointment because her father, attorney Bill Scherer, is a big-time Republican fundraiser who was one of Scott’s early Broward supporters eight years ago."
Law is the Scherer's family business. Elizabeth's brothers, John and William III are also attorneys who work for their father's Fort Lauderdale legal firm.
Speaking about the similarities in style she shares with her father during a 2000 interview with the Daily Business Review, Scherer said: “I think we have a lot of the same ways of putting the pieces of a puzzle together, so to speak, in a way that’s sort of hard to explain. When it clicks, it clicks.”
Judge standout high school athlete, FSU, UM grad
Scherer went to Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale where she was a standout volleyball player, leading the school to two state championships. She earned a bachelor of arts in English at Florida State University and went to law school at the University of Miami.
She told an interviewer that being a good judge includes "understanding the importance of humility."
Scherer has heeded her own advice during the first two weeks of jury selection, which has centered entirely on the issue of finding 12 people — as well as eight alternates — that can commit to jury service during a trial that is expected to last into September.
There have been scores of reasons, Scherer has been told, that being on the jury would cause a hardship
Scherer has remained patient and understanding through the tedious process. She sympathized with those taking care of ill family members, earnestly congratulated two people who said they were about to start medical school and joined in the laughter when a potential juror who works as a restaurant offered the judge a free slice of cheesecake.
Scherer even kept her cool when a juror candidate finished reciting a list of hardships by telling the judge, "I have my sugar daddy that I see everyday."
"I'm sorry?" Scherer asked.
"My sugar daddy," the woman repeated, adding that she also was married.
“So being here would be a hardship for you or an extreme inconvenience for you? Is that correct?” said Scherer.
“Very inconvenient,” said the woman.
"OK," Scherer said. "All right. Ma'am, we'll come back to you, OK? Thank you.”
The woman was excused.