Senate committee passes Supreme Court overhaul plan
With budget talks between the House and Senate strained, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander extended an olive branch to House Speaker Dean Cannon on Monday: Passage by the Budget committee of Cannon's revamp of the Florida Supreme Court.
Alexander attached Cannon's court reform proposal as an amendment to a Senate bill that would give the legislature greater control over court rules.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, asked Alexander, "Why now?" Alexander, chairman of the Budget Committee, answered: "There's concern from our friends in the House that this is something that is needed now." He repeatedly noted that the changes are part of a proposed Constitutional amendment that will require approval by 60 percent of Florida's voters to take effect.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, though, called the scenario as he saw it.
"I understand there's a budget out there that has to be dealt with and it has to be dealt with sooner rather than later," Fasano said. "This is what speaker Cannon wants."
Fasano said he would support the measure to keep budget talks moving, but he looked forward to more in-depth discussion of the changes proposed for the court.
"I'm hoping when we get it to the Senate floor there is much more debate and understanding and appreciation of what we are about to do," he said.
The full House voted last week in favor of the proposed Constitutional amendment, which has been widely criticized by attorneys and judges. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, got worked up when a speaker urged the Senate panel to "protect democracy" and "kill this bill" and referred to the concept as fascist.
"We don't use those kinds of epithets to describe the speaker of the House of Representatives," Gaetz said.
Democrats on the committee questioned the need for the changes at all, saying there's no indiciation the court is overburdened, and like Democrats in the House, some said they see the measure as an attempt to pack the court with justices friendly to Republican causes. The changes would allow Gov. Rick Scott to appoint three new justices who would need approval of the Senate.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said she, too, understands that Alexander is under pressure to keep budget negotiations going, but she voted no on the proposal, saying she hopes the Senate will live up to its reputation as the legislature's deliberative and moderating body.
"We are emasculating the judiciary if we do this," she said.
Immediately after the bill passed, Alexander provided a lengthy update on the status of budget talks with the House.