TALLAHASSEE — The day after House Speaker Dean Cannon revised a plan for revamping the Florida Supreme Court, some Democrats charged the proposal is all about packing the court with judges sympathetic to Republicans in advance of redistricting.
"There's a lot of concern out there that this isn't really about the courts. That this is about redistricting and this is about trying to make things happen before redistricting," said Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach.
Cannon's proposals include expanding the current seven-member Supreme Court into two five-justice divisions, one for civil cases and one for criminal. That change will require a constitutional amendment approved by 60 percent of Florida voters.
As written, HJR 7111 could go before voters as soon as Florida's presidential primary, scheduled for Jan. 31, 2012.
New voting district lines — developed every 10 years — are scheduled to be drawn by lawmakers in early 2012, followed by a Supreme Court review of the proposals.
If voters approve Cannon's measure in a primary election, Gov. Rick Scott would then have three appointees on a remade court that will play a definitive role in redistricting — a significant concern for Democrats.
Discussion of the plans started Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee where Steinberg unsuccessfully sought to make sure a vote wouldn't happen until the November 2012 general election, when turnout would be higher.
But Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, who presented the resolution to the committee, pointed out that language in the legislation is standard, and putting the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot before November 2012 would require a separate bill and 90 votes in the House of Representatives. That means support would have to come from a significant number of Democrats.
Democrats also unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment to change the proposal so that the court, rather than the Legislature, would determine which justices would serve in each division. Cannon, R-Winter Park, wants the three current judges with the most seniority, all appointed by former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, to serve in the criminal division. The thinking is that with more experience they are better equipped to handle complicated death penalty cases. The remaining four, appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, would serve on the civil court. Gov. Scott would fill the vacancies.
Eisnaugle characterized Democrats' concerns as a "red herring," and fellow Republicans agreed.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Destin, said the goal is to make the courts more efficient, pointing out that some decisions take years to make.
"Justice is being denied," he said. "We need direction from the court to guide our business practices and what we do in the private sector."
Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, pointed out that criticism of the Legislature trying to take over the court is misdirected because the proposals will go on a ballot and become part of the state Constitution only if they're approved by 60 percent of voters.
"We're not making any of these changes," Harrison said. "We're giving the people the right to decide if it's what they want for their judiciary."
Attorneys and judges who testified said Cannon's proposals are a major improvement over the first draft, which among other things would have required judges receive 60 percent of the votes in an election to remain on the bench, turned court rule-making over to the Legislature and cut the Florida Bar out of the selection of judges.
Al Lawson, a judge in the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach, agreed that the proposal now under review is better than the original concept. "We can't say we agree at this point on balance that this will be an improvement to the administration of justice," he said.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.