Published: Mar 08, 2011 4:11 AM EST
Updated: Mar 08, 2011 1:11 AM EST

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - House Speaker Dean Cannon on Monday proposed creating a second Florida Supreme Court so that one set of justices could specialize on criminal appeals and the other on civil cases.

The Winter Park Republican said a House committee will draft a proposed state constitutional amendment for the 2012 ballot that also would increase the number of justices from seven to 10 with five on each court.

Cannon has been critical of the Supreme Court for removing three amendments proposed by lawmakers from the ballot last year for having defective ballot summaries, but he denied he's trying to pack the high court with justices friendlier to the GOP-controlled Legislature.

"You could make that assertion, but frankly I'm more concerned with the structural inefficiency and the fact that right now civil appeals are backed up and criminal appeals are consuming a disproportionate amount of the workload," Cannon said.

Coming from the speaker gives the proposal traction in the House, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, also said it appeared to be a sound idea.

"I'm all ears on it," Haridopolos said. "If it's important to him, it's important to me."

Cannon hasn't discussed his idea with the justices and it drew criticism from House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West.

"We're at a time when the judiciary in Florida is underfunded, so the Legislature should fund the courts properly before we expand the number of judges," Saunders said in a statement.

Budget cuts in recent years have reduce support staff although the court system's workload has increased due largely to a deluge of foreclosure cases. The Supreme Court in its annual report to the Legislature says that's caused delays in getting cases resolved.

Cannon said his proposal would help those cases that make it to the Supreme Court get resolved quicker and with fewer errors. He said too much of the high court's time now is spent on a relatively small number of death penalty cases that still take too long to resolve.

"More people are dying on death row of natural causes than lethal injection now," Cannon said.

The proposal is patterned after Texas, where the state Supreme Court handles only civil appeals. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has the final word on criminal cases.

A lawyer, Cannon also proposed a change in merit retention elections for Supreme Court justices and judges of the five district courts of appeal, and he wants records on all complaints against judges to be open to the public. Those proposals also would require changing the Florida Constitution.

Governors appoint justices and appeal judges and then their names appear on the ballot for a yes or no vote every six years. Voters have never ousted a jurist. Cannon proposed a 60 percent vote to stay on the bench rather than a simple majority.

That would make the retention elections more meaningful, Cannon said but he also acknowledged it probably wouldn't change much.

Only seven judges received less than 60 percent in the past 10 years, all in the 2010 election, Cannon noted. They were all members of the 1st District Court of Appeal, which was under fire for building what critics called a "Taj Mahal courthouse" in Tallahassee. The building includes private kitchens and bathrooms for each judge, granite counter and desk tops, etched glass and miles of African mahogany trim.

Complaints against judges are made public only if the Judicial Qualifications Commission files a notice of formal charges with the Supreme Court. Cannon also wants complaints that are dismissed or result in private reprimands to become public after those cases are decided by the commission, a procedure followed by the state Ethics Commission.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)