The day after House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, unveiled a revised plan for revamping the Florida Supreme Court, House Democrats on the Judiciary committee charged the proposal is all about packing the court in advance of redistricting. The Supreme Court reviews the legislative voting district proposals. Those are scheduled to be completed in early 2012, in advance of the November election.
Discussion of House Joint Resolution 7111 on Thursday started with Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, unsuccessfully seeking a change to the proposal to make sure a vote on the Constitutional amendments wouldn't happen until the November 2012 general election. As the bill is written now, the matter could go before voters as soon as the January 2012 presidential primary. Steinberg said that would mean voter turnout would likely be low, and voters not affiliated with a party couldn't participate.
"There's a lot of concern out there that this isn't really about the courts. That this is about redistricting and this is about trying to make things happen before redistricting," Steinberg said. "Voting against this amendment shows this is gamesmanship."
But Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, who presented the resolution to the committee, pointed out that the language in the legislation is standard, and putting the proposed Constitutional amendments on the ballot before November 2012 would require a seperate bill and 90 votes in the House of Representatives. That means support would have to come from a significant number of Democrats, an unlikely prospect.
Among other things, Cannon's proposal would divide the current seven-member Supreme Court into two five-justice divisions, one for civil cases and one for criminal. Democrats also unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment to change the proposal so that the court, rather than the legislature, would determine which justices would serve in each division. Cannon wants the three current judges with the most seniority, all appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, to serve in the criminal division. The thinking is that with more experience they are better equipped to handle complicated death penalty cases. The remaining four, appointed by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, would serve on the civil court. Gov. Rick Scott would fill the vacancies.
"I hate to be a conspiracy theorist," said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. But he said it seems like the proposal is an attempt to pack the courts with people with certain political bent, again, in advance of redistricting.
Eisnaugle characterized Democrats' concerns as a "red herring," and his fellow Republicans agreed.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said the goal is to make the courts more efficient, pointing out that some decisions take years to make.
"Justice is being denied," he said. "We need direction from the court to guide our busines practices and what we do in the private sector."
Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, pointed out that criticism of the legislature trying to take over the court are misdirected because the proposals will go on a ballot and only become part of the state Consitution if they're approved by 60 percent of voters.
"We're not making any of these changes," Harison said. "We're giving the people the right to decide if it's what they want for their judiciary."
The joint resolution on the court revamp passed the panel with a party-line vote.