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Cannon's plan to split Supreme Court gathers steam

House Speaker Dean Cannon's bold plan to split the Supreme Court into two panels and to add three new justices moved forward Thursday with a party-line 10-5 vote by the House Civil Justice Subcommittee. The panel's chairman, Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, steered the bill to passage as expected, with all Republicans voting yes and all Democrats voting no.

The Cannon plan would replace the existing seven-member Supreme Court with two five-member panels, one to handle civil cases and the other to hear criminal cases. Republicans say the court spends too much time on death penalty appeals, forcing cases to languish for more than a year on the court's crowded docket.

Cannon, a Winter Park lawyer, is a vocal critic of the Supreme Court, and he has publicly criticized justices for overstepping their authority by stripping three legislative-sponsored amendments off the 2010 ballot. Cannon personally argued one of the rejected amendments before the court. 

The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Justice Reform Institute support the bifurcated court, while the Florida Bar and some judges voiced strong concerns. Polk County Circuit Judge John Laurent, a former state senator, said Cannon's plan seems to omit the post of chief justice, which Laurent called a serious problem. "We need a boss," Laurent said.

The Cannon proposal now moves to the House Judiciary Committee before hitting the House floor. Two other court-related bills that passed Thursday would require Senate confirmation of all appellate court judges in Florida and eliminate the Florida Bar's ability to recommend candidates to serve on judicial nominating commissions.

-- Steve Bousquet