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Jax Daily Record Friday, Apr. 15, 201112:00 PM EST

Court reorganization bills advance

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by Brandon Larrabee

The News Service of Florida

An effort to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court spearheaded by House Speaker Dean Cannon moved closer to becoming law Thursday, as a Senate counterpart for the measure finally emerged and the House set up a final clash on its version of the measure.

The would-be Senate companion for Cannon’s proposals sprang up as an amendment to a measure (SB 1664) in the Senate to change the way justices are appointed to the state high court.

It marked the first clear sign that Cannon’s most sweeping judicial reform – to split the Supreme Court it into two divisions, one handling criminal cases and the other tackling civil matters – could be seriously considered by the Senate this year.

“I think you’re getting towards the end of session, and this is when everything starts to gel and you decide what you want to focus on and what you don’t want to focus on,” said Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Fort Lauderdale).

Bogdanoff sponsored the confirmation bill and asked a fellow senator to offer the wider package in the Senate Rules Committee as a courtesy amendment, which is scheduled to be considered by the panel today.

Bogdanoff said the new measure would largely match up with the House bill, though there are some differences relating to the confirmation process.

The House proposal would allow a Senate committee to take up nominees, while Bogdanoff’s plan would call for the upper chamber to vote on the nomination within 90 days of the governor naming an appointment, even if that required a special session.

Bogdanoff also made no guarantees the bill would continue to mirror the House version as it moves through the process.

“We’re going to make changes if the senators want to make changes,” she said.

Meanwhile, the House set up the bill for a final vote by adopting a handful of amendments while rejecting a Democratic attempt to change the composition of the new divisions of the court.

Under the House plan, the three most senior justices – all appointed by Democratic governors – would move to the criminal court.

The Republican-appointed justices would be placed on the civil court, which is more likely to hear challenges to the GOP-dominated Legislature’s authority.

Rep. Richard Steinberg (D-Miami Beach) offered an amendment that would have allowed the justices to select which panel they would sit on based on seniority. The amendment was rejected by on a party-line vote.

Republicans defended their original proposal, saying the most experienced justices should handle the most important cases.

“The civil side can take away your property and your money,” Cannon (R-Winter Park) said after the vote. “The criminal side can take away your liberty and your life.”

But Democrats said it was more about politics, with the GOP taking out the one remaining obstacle in a state where the Governor’s Mansion, every Cabinet post and a two-thirds majority in each legislative chamber is in Republican hands.

“They would like to have unfettered control of the state of Florida,” said Steinberg.

Earlier in the day, former Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat, joined several current and former judges and lawyers in questioning the drive to revamp the courts.

“The long-term implications of this are enormous in terms of a fundamental shift of the independence of the judiciary to a judiciary that is under the tight control of the political branches of state government,” said Graham.

Cannon brushed off those criticisms as the cost of undertaking an ambitious reform effort.

“It’s difficult when you change the status quo,” he said, “and it upsets those who have operated under the status quo.”

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