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Friday, April 15, 2011

The Florida legislatures court packing scheme

From Tampa Bayonline

by Lyndsay Peterson

TALLAHASSEE - House Democrats tried to pass an amendment on Thursday that they said would end suspicions that a plan to revamp the state Supreme Court was a move to "pack" the court with Republicans before new voting districts are drawn.

"This says we're not going to play politics with the court," Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, said as he proposed the amendment.

The measure was defeated in a 79-39 party line vote, and the original bill was advanced to a final hearing today.

The court redo, which would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment, would add three new justices to the court and split it into two divisions, one dealing with criminal cases, the other with civil.

New justices appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott would go to the civil side, where they would, among other duties, be responsible for reviewing redistricting plans. The legislature is scheduled to redraw district boundaries next year, a process that will see the Republican majority trying to strengthen or increase its influence.

The more senior members, which include appointees of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, would go to the criminal division.

Steinberg's amendment would have let the justices pick their divisions based on seniority.

It would tell voters that this is "not about court packing, not about redistricting," Steinberg said.

Voting against the amendment "is an admission that you are politically motivated by this bill," state Rep. Ron Saunders, a Democrat from Key West, said.

But the sponsor of the court redo, state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, said logic, not politics, was behind the assignment plan. It would put the most experienced members in charge of the most difficult cases, involving the death penalty.

Supporters of the bill, originated by House Speaker Dean Cannon, from Winter Haven, say it would speed up the work of the high court.

But bill critics say Florida's Supreme Court is already as efficient as most other state high courts.

Democrats questioned Eisnaugle about how much data he had collected to show the change would make the court more efficient, noting that the Florida Bar Association and other judicial groups opposed the bill.

"What is the urgency" to acting now, rather than working with the legal community and collecting more information, Steinberg asked.

"When you find a way to improve state government, we ought to do it," Eisnaugle answered, adding that two House committees spent a significant amount of time developing the bill this session.

Earlier in the day, a group of attorneys, former state Supreme Court justices and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham warned of the bill's consequences. In addition to creating the two divisions, it would take over the court system's internal rulemaking process.

"The long-term implications are enormous in terms of a fundamental shift of an independent judiciary to (a system) under the tight control of political branches of government," said Graham, also a former governor.

There are lawmakers who "believe the court system is an agency of the Legislature," said former justice Gerald Kogan, who worked with lawmakers on budget issues when he was on the bench.

The courts were set up to be a co-equal branch of government. But when people don't think they don't function that way, they lose faith in government overall, said Martha Barnett, former president of the American Bar Association.

A healthy court system is what enables a society to solve disputes civilly "and not in the street," she said.

Critics of the bill also questioned its expense, saying it would take $14 million in startup costs and $7 million a year for continuing operations, while lower courts are starving for funding.

The bill would set aside at least 2.25 percent of general revenue every year to fund the judicial branch, but Democrats on Thursday questioned whether future lawmakers would divert the money into a trust fund and not use it on the courts.

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