Cannon’s high court shuffle clears House panelby John Kennedy | April 7th, 2011
House Speaker Dean Cannon’s latest push to revamp the Florida Supreme Court sailed through a House panel Thursday in a vote divided on party lines — with Democrats ridiculing the measure as unneeded and chiefly a partisan payback.
“What is the rush for this?” asked Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach.
Cannon has been at odds with the court since justices last summer struck from the ballot three initiatives approved by the Republican-ruled Legislature. But bill sponsor Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, said the proposed overhaul is “about accountability and efficiency.”
Another Republican supporter, Rep. Charles McBurney of Jacksonville, said the legislation, “is a transformative resolution.” The Judiciary Committee approved the legislation 12-6.
The bill (CS/HJR 7111) would expand the current seven-member Florida Supreme Court to 10 members — but divide it into two divisions, civil and criminal. The approach is less sweeping than a larger court division initially proposed by Cannon, and backs away from his earlier call for eliminating Judicial Nominating Commissions and giving the governor more autonomy in naming judges.
The measure is aimed at the 2012 ballot, where at least 60 percent of voters would have to approve the change for it to become law.
Supporters also worked to sell the legislation, saying it includes state funding provisions designed to avert the cash crunch that this week threatened to shutter courtrooms statewide.
But those representing Florida courts and lawyers were wary of the proposal — saying it needs more study, perhaps hinting at what may emerge as the legislative end-game. With fewer than 30 days left in the legislative session, the Senate so far has shown no interest in the court overhaul.
Still, Cannon may advance the proposal as part of his final deal-making with the Senate, on budget and other items.
“We request to continue the dialogue,” said Mayanne Downs, president of the Florida Bar.
Several judges also disputed an underlying premise of the proposal: That the Florida Supreme Court was failing to move swiftly on cases, including those involving the death penalty.
First District Court of Appeal Judge Peter Webster tesfied that since 2001, the backlog of cases still pending before the court at year’s end has been reduced 45 percent. Steinberg, the Miami Beach Democrat, also presented findings that showed far more death penalty challenges had been reviewed and decided by justices last year than in 2001.
Some Democratic lawmakers and those testifying before the panel suggested that the proposal may be intended to yield a high court that could be more friendly toward Republican leaders during next year’s legislative redistricting. But Eisnaugle dismissed the claim as a “red herring,” saying he envisions putting the measure before voters in fall 2012 — likely well after redistricting is settled.
Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Temple Terrace, said all House Republicans wanted was for voters to decide.
“We’re not making any changes,” Harrison said. “We’re letting the people decide.”