TALLAHASSEE, Fla.- In a far-reaching exercise of power by one branch of government over another, the Republican-controlled Florida House of Representatives passed a sweeping overhaul of the state's courts system on Friday.
House members passed the main legislation (HJR 7111) by a party-line vote of 79-38 and approved the bill (HB 7199) that implements it, 78-37. Related bills also passed easily, all backed by Speaker Dean Cannon.
The legislation, which requires changing the state's constitution, expands the Supreme Court from seven to 10 members and splits them evenly into separate divisions for criminal and civil appeals.
Its Republican backers said the changes will allow for judicial specialization to move cases faster and will promote transparency in the selection of judges and justices.
It also requires that the three more senior justices - Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy A. Quince - go to the criminal bench to use their expertise on death-penalty appeals. They happen to be appointees of the late Lawton Chiles, a Democratic governor.
Democrats have lambasted that part of the bill as "court packing," saying Republican Gov. Rick Scott will get to fill the civil bench with his picks. They fear GOP-friendly jurists will sway important business and social-policy cases ending up in the civil division, including any political redistricting challenges.
Republicans said criticism of the plan, which now goes to the Senate, was "hyperbole."
Minority Leader Ron Saunders, a Florida Keys Democrat, asked if the legislature would be pushing the high-court changes had Democrat Alex Sink won the last governor's race, instead of Scott, also a Tea Party favorite.
"I think not," he said. "Stop using the constitution as a political football."
But state Rep. Clay Ford, a Gulf Breeze Republican and a lawyer, said lawmakers heard "a real need for reform" of the courts as the measures wound through committees.
"Failure to act now would be a grave disservice to our citizens," he said. "We need to fix the system."
The court's own statistics seemingly disprove that sentiment, however, showing the number of death penalty cases on the Supreme Court's docket is decreasing and that they're getting resolved faster. The number of all cases pending has decreased for six years straight.
The changes require constitutional revisions that ultimately have to be approved by 60 percent of voters on the November 2012 ballot.
That's why state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, said it's up to the people of Florida to enact the change. He suggested they will.
"Our Supreme Court of Florida has failed us over and over," he said. "This legislature will send a message that should be sent and make a decision that places the court and its future in their hands."
State Rep. Rich Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, characterized the Supreme Court split in particular as an act of vengeance for murder victims and their families.
He mentioned the frustration of seeing defendants sentenced to death years ago still sitting on Death Row, and talked about victims' loved ones waiting for justice only to die before the murderer does.
"Undeniably, without question, I am voting for this bill to stick it to every death-row inmate in the state of Florida," Corcoran said.
State Rep. Geri Thompson, D-Orlando, who is married to senior appellate judge Emerson R. Thompson Jr., said she feared the high court might give rubber-stamp approval for the governor's programs.
"It's difficult to give wise counsel to a person who wants echoes," Thompson said. "We were told the governor would only appoint people who think like him. That's echoes, not wise counsel."
State Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said his father - former Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne - taught him that courts work best when they are methodical and deliberate.
"God forbid you ever have to sit at a defendant's table, you would want just that," he said.
He also reminded the chamber of the Supreme Court's Latin motto, which translates as "soon enough if correct."
"It doesn't mean a rush to judgment," Jenne said.
Among other changes, the overhaul also:
- Guarantees court funding of 2.25 percent of general revenue.
- Expands the high court's jurisdiction so it could consider cases beyond just those where lower appeals courts have disagreed on the same point of law.
- Makes appointments of justices subject to Senate confirmation.
- Provides for appointments of people to serve on judicial nominating commissions to be made by the governor.
- Opens certain confidential files of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates and disciplines judges, to view by House members.
Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate on Thursday.
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