Law Suits & Courts

Variety of bills would restructure courts

Posted on Friday, March 18, 2011

The Florida Supreme Court is in for an upheaval if the Republican-dominated Legislature has anything to say about it.
A blockbuster announced Monday by House Speaker Dean Cannon would break the court in two — one for civil cases and the other for criminal cases.
The measure, which would require a constitutional amendment, would propose a five-member court for each type of case to replace the current seven-member court, which decides all cases and disciplines attorneys.
The state Constitution currently states, "The supreme court shall consist of seven justices." The constitution also spells out a geographic breakdown to guarantee all regions of the state are represented in Tallahassee.
A day before the opening of the annual legislative session, Senate President Mike Haridopolos said he was "all ears" and thought Cannon's court reform ideas were "sound."
The latest announcement expands on an onslaught of bills that mark the most aggressive attack on the judicial branch in recent memory. Some of the bills conflict with each other in terms of selecting nominees.
The Supreme Court proposal would create a system similar to what's in place in Texas, where a nine-member Supreme Court considers civil and juvenile cases and a nine-member Court of Criminal Appeals handles criminal cases.
Interviewed before the court breakup idea surfaced, Florida Bar president Mayanne Downs of King Blackwell Downs & Zehnder in Orlando spoke Thursday about the state's judicial selection process.
"We have a system that has worked for many, many, many, many years. It's not broken. We don't need to fix it," she said. "It's one that people have a voice in." She did not respond to a request for comment on the Cannon's proposal.
Merit Retention
Another bill would let the minority rule at the judicial ballot box.
Appellate judges up for merit retention would have to get at least 60 percent of the vote instead of a simple majority under a bill filed Thursday by state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami.
Flores' bill, SJR 1672, would require a three-fifths vote by both houses of the Legislature and 60 percent of the vote in a referendum election. Historically, appellate judges have been attracting about 70 percent of the vote. No Florida Supreme Court justice has lost a merit retention race since the first one was conducted in 1978.
But the 2010 campaign featured a loosely organized campaign targeting first-term Justices Jorge Labarga and James Perry for voting with the majority to remove a ballot item on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. If the 60 percent rule were in effect, Labarga, who finished with 59 percent of the vote, would have been the only one of four justices on the ballot to lose his seat.
Flores also filed SJR 1666, which proposes a separate constitutional amendment requiring all circuit and county court judges who are unopposed for re-election to be subject to retention votes. Automatic re-election would go out the window under this scenario.
A key tactic of incumbent judges is to scare off would-be opponents by building huge war chests months ahead of filing deadlines. Under the new bill, the money would be needed to retain a seat whether a challenger files or not.
Change In Nominations
State Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, is proposing abolishing judicial nominating commissions for all Florida appellate judges. The governor would pick nominees without any formal outside input, and the state Senate would make the final decision on a confirmation vote.
State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, on Thursday filed SJR 1664, which would keep judicial nominating commissions but require Senate confirmation for Supreme Court justices only.
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, seeks to reverse a change adopted at the behest of former Gov. Jeb Bush in the composition of JNCs.
Bush succeeded in getting the governor to pick all nine JNC members, which select finalists. The governor and The Bar shared the task under the previous system.
Under SB 856 filed last month, Joyner proposes The Florida Bar board of governors, not the governor, appoint all JNC members.
In addition, the commissions would have to meet minimum requirements for racial and gender diversity. At least three of the nine members would have to be a woman or member of an ethnic minority group. Joyner's bill is the only one that does not require a constitutional amendment and approval by voters.
The bill has been referred to the Judiciary, Criminal Justice and Budget committees for review. Unless the measure picks up GOP backers in the Republican-dominated Legislature, it could die.
By Adolfo Pesquera, DAILY BUSINESS REVIEW


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