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Thursday, April 14, 2011

After teachers, unions, the disabled, the sick and the poor, the Florida legislature targets the courts

From the Miami Herald

By JAMES L. ROSICA and the associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Bob Graham, a former governor and U.S. senator from Florida, said on Thursday that a legislative plan to overhaul Florida's courts is a "solution seeking to find a problem."

The retired Democrat spoke during a conference call with reporters on Thursday. He joined with retired Supreme Court justices - including those appointed by Republican governors - and other legal figures to denounce the plan. They've formed a bipartisan coalition called Floridians for Fair and Impartial Courts.

House Speaker Dean Cannon supports the overhaul package, including a proposal to split the Supreme Court into separate divisions for criminal and civil appeals. It is scheduled for a House floor vote on Friday.

Graham, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1987-2005, suggested that the changes were political payback for the high court's 5-2 rejection of three constitutional-amendment questions.

Those questions - all backed by the Republican-controlled Legislature - were tossed from the 2010 ballot because of confusing or misleading ballot summaries.

"If the Legislature is upset, then the approach they ought to take is to put another constitutional amendment on the ballot and let the people decide if they made a mistake in their earlier action," said Graham, who also served as governor in the 1980s.

The amendments concerned letting voters voice opposition to the U.S. health care overhaul, strengthening the Legislature's hand in redrawing congressional and legislative districts and giving home buyers an extra property tax exemption if they hadn't owned a house for at least eight years.

"The way to solve the problem is not by changing the fundamental character and independence of our judiciary," Graham added.

He also mentioned that the new civil division would likely consider a lawsuit he is involved in over who has authority to set tuition for the state's public universities. Graham sued to establish the state university system's Board of Governors as the body responsible for setting tuition, intending to curtail political interference.

Charles Hobbs, former general counsel for the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, said he was concerned over plans to change the state's judicial nominating commissions.

One measure would remove The Florida Bar from the process of recommending people to serve on those commissions and replace it with the attorney general's office, currently held by Republican Pam Bondi.

Hobbs said his concern is that many blacks and non-Cuban Hispanics aren't Republicans, and would be shut out of the process. As general counsel, he represented the state's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The change to the Supreme Court requires amending the state constitution. It would have to be approved by 60 percent of voters on the November 2012 ballot before becoming effective.

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