A bill portrayed as an attempt to keep politics out of judicial appointments dissolved into a tense political dispute Tuesday as the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted out a constitutional amendment to give the next governor the ability to stack the court -- against the wishes of Democrats.
The proposal by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon and chairman of the committee, on its surface looks like a simple attempt to clarify Florida law that now raises questions about whether an outgoing governor or his incoming successor is entitled to make the appointments to the Florida Supreme Court when the vacancy occurs on inauguration day.
But, because of a coincidence of timing, the terms of three of the seven sitting justices are expected to expire at the same time as the term of the next governor. As a result, the proposed amendment effectively allows the governor elected in 2014 to stack the court as one of the final acts of his four-year term -- potentially leaving a legacy that could last generations.
"Good governance transcends any personality or ideology,'' said Lee, who is a supporter of Gov. Rick Scott. "If we try to do this in 2016, there will be a whole lot of discussion about who this benefits and who this doeen't. I think this is the purest time to deal with it."
But who wins the election in November may determine when the justices decide to retire. If the justices agree with the judicial philosophy of the sitting governor, they could retire early, and give the governor clear authority to appoint their successors. If they disagree with the governor's philosophy, they could wait until the end of the next governor's term and leave open the door for a successor governor to pick the replacement.