Florida Lawyers, GOP Gird for Judicial Reform Battle

Florida Bar wrangles with Legislature over balance of power
By: Kenric Ward | Posted: March 22, 2011 3:55 AM
Dean Cannon, Mayanne Downs and Mike Haridopolos

House Speaker Dean Cannon, Florida Bar President Mayanne Downs and Senate President Mike Haridopolos

Florida Bar President Mayanne Downs appears ready to contest at least some of House Speaker Dean Cannon's judicial reform agenda.

In an e-mail obtained by Sunshine State News, Downs informs Florida's 90,000 Bar members:

"These are challenging times. I cannot promise that the results of this session will be everything we want, or that final legislation will be noncontroversial. I can promise, though, that your Bar leadership team is fully and completely engaged, and is passionately fighting for the very best outcomes we can obtain."

Outlining several areas of concern and potential conflict, Downs cited pending bills that would, in her words:

  • Strip rulemaking from the Supreme Court, and give it to the Legislature.
  • Eliminate all Judicial Nominating Commissions at the appellate court level and require Senate confirmation of gubernatorial appointees.
  • Eliminate Judicial Qualifications Commission confidentiality.
  • Pay judges based on how many cases they decide.
  • Split the Supreme Court into civil and criminal panels.
  • Raise the vote from 50 percent to 60 percent for judicial merit retention.
  • Remove the Florida Bar from the Judicial Nominating Commission process.

"While legislative proposals are ever-changing, I want you to know what the Florida Bar is doing on behalf of the legal profession and the judiciary," Downs wrote.

"Over the next six weeks, we will actively participate in the legislative process to ensure that reasonable approaches and alternatives are being considered as these proposals are heard."

Downs, however, cannot take unilateral action. The Bar's 52-member Board of Governors must first vote to take positions on legislation. The board is scheduled to convene Friday in Orlando.

Speaker Cannon, through spokeswoman Katie Betta, said he has "a longstanding personal friendship with Ms. Downs [and] understands that some of the court reform proposals may face opposition."

Betta said Cannon, himself an attorney, has met with Downs "and other members of the Bar and the bench on an ongoing basis to receive their input and to discuss how the Legislature can work with the judicial branch to improve efficiency, accountability and transparency."

Senate President Mike Haridopolos says he expects his chamber to conduct "a full hearing" on the reforms, which he characterized as an effort to "spread sunshine on the [judicial] process, and make it more inclusive."

Though the Bar says it is most concerned about funding for the judiciary and public "access" to courts, critics see a political tug-of-war developing between the association, which is heavily represented by Democratic-leaning trial lawyers, and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

"The Bar's board of governors is run by the left. What is the check on the Bar?" asked one legal observer who declined to be identified. "There is no nexus with the voters."

Cannon's proposal to split the Supreme Court into civil and criminal panels garnered headlines this month, but plans to strip the Judicial Nominating Commission are particularly irksome to the lawyers' organization.

Holding four of the nine seats on the JNC, the Bar's appointees routinely vote as a bloc, and regularly pick off one or more of the five gubernatorial appointees to side with them.

Because the JNC terms do not coincide with elections, incoming governors are saddled with previous governors' appointments.

"Our justices are being picked by an unelected group to control one-third of our government. This is the most political thing going," said a critic, speaking on background.

Seeking to further curb Bar influence and hold the judiciary accountable, Cannon also wants to raise the required public retention vote to 60 percent. No appellate-level judge has ever failed to win retention, though some have barely cleared the 50 percent standard.

Retention reform, along with a requirement to open up the proceedings of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, is needed to shine a brighter light on the process, says Jesse Phillips, founder of Citizen2Citizen.

“During the last election people were frustrated by how difficult it was to find information about the judges on the ballot,” Phillips said.

“Judges facing re-election benefit from how the Florida Bar effectively quiets the legal community and keeps Floridians in the dark. Voters have a serious constitutional responsibility to confirm or overturn judicial appointments but so often lack the necessary information to do that wisely.”

To turn up the heat and facilitate public information, Phillips' group has launched a Florida Judicial Review website as a forum to discuss the judicial system and judges facing merit retention votes.

Bar officials fret that reforms could "politicize" the judiciary. Downs' e-mail calls them "unprecedented," and she doesn't mean that as a compliment.

But some GOP lawmakers believe that Florida's courts have inappropriately expanded their purview from procedural matters into policymaking, which is the Legislature's responsibility.

Republican legislators say they are trying to rebalance the scales.

Commenting on judicial appointments, Haridopolos said Cannon's model is more in line with what the Founding Fathers envisioned.

"The governor appoints, the Senate would accept or reject, and voters would have the final say. It's a check-and-balance system," he explained. "If you asked the random person on the street how the process works, that's probably what most people would say," the Merritt Island Republican added.

As for raising the retention standard at the polls, Haridopolos said a 60 percent threshold would mirror existing rules on "what is allowed to be on the ballot."

Targeting the Bar as an undue and undemocratic influencer, Cannon's reform package seeks to tie the selection of appellate judges to the will of the people.

From the Board of Medicine to the Board of Realtors to the Board of Accountants, the governor makes all appointments without interference by their respective associations, noted one source who favors the U.S. model of presidential appointments of federal judgeships, subject to Senate confirmation.

"President Obama selected Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court. Is the Bar saying she's a bad judge?"

Downs was in meetings Monday afternoon and was unavailable for comment on deadline.


Reach Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

Comments (3)

7:50AM DEC 27TH 2011
Big help, big help. And superlative news of csoure.
7:19AM MAR 22ND 2011
The Bar should give Cannon equal time and access to the Bar's email database in order to explain the House agenda for the courts. The elite Left that control the Bar don't realize that more members of the Bar than not are fully supportive all of these judicial reforms. Why should I be funding the opposition to these reforms through my Bar dues?
7:51AM APR 17TH 2011
The Florida Bar is nothing more than a private membership club..needs to be dismantled..and if the legislature doesnt take care of business..the people will



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