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Friday, April 15, 2011

So much for independent courts in Florida

From the USAToday

By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Judges and the courts they sit on are, above all else, supposed to be independent. The judges are the umpires, as U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts famously referred to them, calling balls and strikes regardless of the consequences. Unlike politicians, who react to every twitch of public opinion, judges aren’t supposed to consider whether a decision will be popular, just whether it is fair and true to the law. Their job is to protect principle against the mob.

All of which explains why frustrated politicians periodically seize on public emotions to undo that two century old principle. Take, for instance, Florida Republicans, who seem to have forgotten the lesson that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was taught in 1937, when he tried to expand the Supreme Court and pack it with several new justices sympathetic to his New Deal. The Democrat’s attempt proved so unpopular that even many in his own party didn’t support him. No president has tried such a maneuver since.

Opinions expressed in USA TODAY's editorials are decided by its Editorial Board, a demographically and ideologically diverse group that is separate from USA TODAY's news staff.

Most editorials are accompanied by an opposing view ? a unique USA TODAY feature that allows readers to reach conclusions based on both sides of an argument rather than just the Editorial Board's point of view.

Not so the GOP majority in Florida’s state House, which moved one step closer Thursday to passage of a constitutional amendment that would pack the state Supreme Court.

The Florida plan, championed by House Speaker Dean Cannon, sounds an awful lot like Roosevelt’s — proving that such machinations are not confined to either party. The measure would add three new justices to the court, all of whom would be named by Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Then it would go one step past Roosevelt by dividing the court in two. The three most senior justices — all, coincidentally, appointed by a Democratic governor — would be consigned to a new criminal division.

This would ensure a conservative-leaning majority on a new civil division, where pivotal cases involving the drawing of new voting districts will land next year. Republicans cite all sorts of reasons for expansion, such as needing to cut the court's heavy caseload. They ignore the fact that the court's caseload is now the lowest in a decade.

The political maneuvering in Florida, more brazen than most, is just one example of a push across the country by officeholders and special interest groups to place the courts under their thumb.

In Iowa last November, groups that oppose same-sex marriage targeted three Supreme Court justices who were part of a 7-0 vote invalidating a law limiting marriage to a man and a woman. The three were tossed out of office simply for interpreting the state constitution honestly.

This spring in Arizona, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as in Florida, Republicans have taken aim at merit selection systems designed to remove politics, as much as possible, from judicial appointments. Measures in those states would either weaken or kill independent nominating commissions, placing more power in the hands of the governor. The Iowa and Oklahoma measures died, but the others are moving forward.

Judges make an easy target for lawmakers and governors trying to consolidate power. Few voters get riled up about arcane measures that sound far removed from daily life. Yet it would be hard to overstate how much of daily life is affected by what happens in courts. Judges, like those on the Florida Supreme Court, rule often on freedom of speech, freedom of religion and civil rights — some of our most cherished principles.

If Florida lawmakers succeed in their push to make judges more responsive to popular whim, anyone who goes to court will rightly wonder whether the judge is an impartial umpire or part of a political team.

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