Florida Republicans Seek Overhaul of Courts – Issue to be submitted to Voters


MIAMI — The Florida Senate has decided to put major changes in the state court system before voters next year but only after rejecting the most contentious proposal, which would have split the Supreme Court in two.

The debate over the most sweeping judicial overhaul package in the country ended late Monday in a partial victory for Republicans and Speaker Dean Cannon, who had championed the changes.

The fight pitted Republicans calling for the broad changes against Democrats, lawyers and senior and retired judges, who called their efforts an attempt to politicize the bench by stripping the judiciary of its independence and giving the governor power to name judges.

In the end, there were not enough Republicans willing to split the Supreme Court into separate divisions for criminal and civil cases. The change would have given Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, the power to appoint three new justices to hear appeals of civil cases.

Voting along party lines late Monday, the Senate instead approved a package of changes that increases the Legislature’s influence on the state court system.

The measure would give the House access to investigations of judges and allow the Legislature to repeal judicial procedural rules enacted by the Florida Supreme Court. Perhaps most important, the changes would allow the Senate to confirm the governor’s appointments of justices.

Critics said that all the changes, including the rejected Supreme Court provision, would have returned the state’s judiciary to the era of cronyism. A half-century ago, Florida’s judiciary was so riddled with old-school politics that a courthouse joke’s punch line packed the sting of truth: “What do you call a sitting judge? A friend of the governor.”

“Members, we’re going down a slippery slope,” Senator Christopher L. Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said in Monday’s debate. “We’re going into the judicial branch.”

Five Republican senators, most of whom are also lawyers, agreed with opponents of the bill, which included former justices, senior judges and Bob Graham, a Democrat and former governor and United States senator.

Mike Haridopolos, the Senate president, told reporters he had failed to deliver enough Republican votes to get the 60 percent needed to pass the bill with the Supreme Court provision intact. “The person to blame is me,” he said.

Legislative tug-of-wars with the judiciary occur in some state houses every year. But the tussles are usually limited to a single, narrow issue. What has made Florida’s fight different is the breadth of the proposed changes.

The debate also came at a time when the court system, like Florida itself, is struggling with a financial crisis. Fewer lawsuits are being filed, which means a decline in filing fees, and that has left the courts with a $74 million shortfall. The resolutions in the Legislature guarantee full financing, but several senior judges said financial security for the courts in exchange for a less independent bench was a bad trade-off.

In the past month, the battle became intensely partisan and even personal. Republican legislators talked about the need to rein in the Supreme Court’s power. (Last year, the court tossed out three ballot initiatives championed by the Legislature, both houses of which are controlled by Republicans.)

“Our Supreme Court of Florida has failed us over and over,” Representative Charles E. Van Zant, Republican of Palatka, said last month on the House floor. “This Legislature will send a message that should be sent.”

Predictably, the fervor of the advocates for the changes alarmed some current and former judges, including Raoul G. Cantero, who had been appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican.

“If I were on the court, I’d be very disturbed by what is going on in the Legislature,” said Mr. Cantero, who retired in 2008. “There is a strong antijudiciary feeling that I feel is very counterproductive.”

The proposals, which are amendments to the State Constitution, would then be decided by Florida voters next year. Sixty percent of state voters are needed for the amendments to be approved.

The bill was a priority of Speaker Cannon, Republican of Winter Park.

“Is the judiciary independent? Yes,” Mr. Cannon said in a recent interview. “Omnipotent? No. Florida went too far with power to the judiciary after the late ’60s and early ’70s, and all we are doing is trying to establish a more efficient judicial branch.”

Critics argued that Mr. Cannon was motivated in part by revenge against the Supreme Court for striking down the three ballot initiatives approved by the Legislature. The justices concluded that the ballot initiative about political redistricting was intended to mislead voters.

“That’s completely untrue,” Mr. Cannon said of the critics’ accusation. “People who live in the status quo fight against any change of the status quo. But that doesn’t mean these changes aren’t what’s best for the state of Florida.”

After the vote Monday night that stripped out the proposal to split the state’s highest court, Mr. Cannon remained upbeat. “It’s a win,” he told reporters. “It’s absolutely a win.”

Comments are closed.