by Brandon Larrabee
The News Service of Florida
An overhaul of House Speaker Dean Cannon’s sweeping plan to reform the Florida Supreme Court still didn’t appease critics Thursday, with opponents still painting the measure as an effort to pack the panel with new, presumably more conservative justices.
Critics also said the plan could be aimed at changing the court’s makeup before it reviews legislative redistricting next year, something Cannon (R-Winter Park) and other supporters dismissed out of hand.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the latest version of the court legislation on a 12-6 vote along party lines after almost two hours of debate Thursday.
Under the new proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 7111), the Supreme Court would stay as one.
However, the seven-member panel would add three justices and have a civil and criminal division of five justices each, a change from Cannon’s initial plan to split the court outright.
The governor would appoint the chief justice for each division, and the two would alternate as chief justice of the entire court.
The Senate would also have to confirm any new justice appointed by the governor.
The measure would also give the House access to investigative files of the Judicial Qualifications Commission to review possible cases for impeachment and would set aside at least 2.25 percent of general revenue every year to fund the judicial branch.
Supporters say the measures will speed up the work of the court and allow members to gain expertise in their respective arenas.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, who attended the committee meeting for a separate measure, didn’t directly endorse the proposal when asked about it by reporters, but she indicated something needed to be done.
“As a 20-year prosecutor, I support court reform efforts,” said Bondi.
“I have two inmates who have been sitting on death row for quite some time,” she said.
Opponents still pounded the plan as an attempt to inject politics into the high court in the wake of a series of rebukes last year to constitutional amendments proposed by GOP leaders.
The court struck several amendments from the ballot that justices said could confuse or mislead voters.
“I frankly think people in this process are not happy with decisions the Supreme Court made a couple months ago, and they are going to get vindictive with the courts,” said Rep. Richard Steinberg (D-Miami Beach).
Some critics also predicted that the GOP could try to push the measure onto the ballot before November 2012 in an effort to tip the balance of the Supreme Court before it considers redistricting proposals.
Jill Schwartz, state chair of the National Council of Jewish Women, asked the Legislature to do more research on whether there was any reality to the perceived backlog of cases at the court.
“Otherwise, it is clear that there’s only one motive for that, and that is to pack the court in advance of redistricting,” she said.
Speaking with reporters after the House adjourned Thursday evening, Cannon said the criticism was surprising and baseless.
He noted that contentions that the court vote could be held as part of a presidential primary in late January might be inaccurate if the state changes its primary date, as the national Republican party is proposing.
Even then, he said, the timeline for the court overhaul taking effect outlined in the bill would make it unlikely the changes would be in place for the hearing on the new political maps.
“That is a red herring,” he said. “I think that they may have some philosophical discomfort with the fact that it would change the composition of the court, but it has nothing to do with redistricting.”
Republicans at the Judiciary Committee meeting also noted that putting the measure on the ballot early would require Democratic support.
They also dismissed many opponents’ apocalyptic portrayal of the effects the measure would have.
“It does give the people of Florida a chance to take back their courts,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach).