Government

Florida House Prepares for Supreme Court Reform Vote

GOP leadership wants to forward constitutional amendment to create two courts
By: Kevin Derby | Posted: April 15, 2011 3:55 AM
Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, Speaker Dean Cannon, Rep. Ron Saunders

Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, Speaker Dean Cannon, Rep. Ron Saunders

While budget conferencing with the Senate remains in limbo until after the Easter weekend, the Florida House met Thursday afternoon and set the stage for a vote Friday on reforming the state Supreme Court, including forwarding an amendment to the voters proposing splitting the court into two separate branches.

Early on in the session, Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, called for the creation of two separate courts, one to focus on criminal justice matters while the other would handle civil matters. The measure would raise the court from seven justices to 10 with five on each branch. If the Legislature passes the measure, a constitutional amendment would head to the ballot in November 2012 when it would need 60 percent support to pass.

“We have gone through a very deliberative and thoughtful process,” said Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando. “As a result, in judiciary, we made some significant amendments to the court reform bill.”

Democratic House Leader Ron Saunders of Key West led his caucus in poking holes at the measure, arguing during questioning that the proposal would expand the number of justices and staffers for the court -- all at the taxpayers’ expense.

While Republicans control an overwhelming majority in the House -- 81 of the 120 seats -- and should be able to move the measure through that chamber, the Senate may be a bit more difficult. Under a series of questions from freshman Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, Eisnaugle admitted that there was no companion measure in the Senate that would split the Supreme Court into two branches. The Orlando Republican added that, with the Legislature still in session, that could change.

Both sides offered amendments -- with those introduced by the Republican majority passing and those proposed by Democrats, including Steinberg, going down to defeat.

On Thursday, opponents of the court reform measure in a new organization called Floridians for Fair and Impartial Courts held a call with the media to speak out against the proposal, arguing that it would give the Legislature and the governor too much power over the bench.

“A fair and impartial court system is vital to the proper functioning of our society and is necessary to ensure that all disputes are resolved according to the rule of law and our Constitution,” said former Justice Raoul Cantero. “I am deeply concerned about proposed constitutional amendments and legislation that would jeopardize the ability of the courts to fulfill that critical mission.”

Other members of Floridians for Fair and Impartial Courts included former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, three former chief justices of the state Supreme Court, judges from across the state, former presidents of the Florida Bar and a former president of the American Bar Association. Graham suggested that the proposal resulted from the Supreme Court striking a number of proposed amendments that the Legislature forwarded to the ballot, including measures allowing Floridians to opt out of the federal health-care law and a redistricting amendment taking aim at the proposals backed by FairDistricts Florida. 

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.


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