TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House approved a proposal Friday that gives Gov. Rick Scott the power to fire many of the people who help select the state's judges, a move Democrats say will lead to a more politicized judiciary.
If passed by the Senate, it would be the most significant change to the process by which court vacancies are filled since 2001, when the Legislature gave former Gov. Jeb Bush the power to appoint all nine members of these screening panels with some input from the Florida Bar.
As it works now, the process for choosing members of the state's 26 Judicial Nominating Commissions is "like a weird game of judicial hokeypokey," said sponsor Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
The nine-member commissions, called JNCs, consist of five members chosen by the governor and four chosen with input from the Florida Bar Board of Governors. The appointees are mostly lawyers, though the governor can choose no more than three non-lawyers per panel.
Their terms are four years.
Under Gaetz's bill, Scott and future governors would be able to remove and replace the five gubernatorial appointments, which comprise a majority. The governor's picks could serve indefinitely.
While circuit and county judges in Florida are elected by voters to six-year terms, the governor has the power to fill the vacant seats. The governor, with input from the JNC, appoints all state Supreme Court and appellate justices. Voters are asked whether to retain those appointees every six years.
Gaetz's measure, HB 971, passed 77-35.
Dissenting Democrats said the bill gives too much authority to the governor and oversteps the system of checks and balances.
"Today we might as well eulogize the courts and the legal system for what we are doing to them," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, a lawyer and Democrat from St. Petersburg.
But Gaetz, who is also a lawyer, said the process is already politicized within the "micropolitics of a local Bar association." Under his proposal, he said, voters can hold the governor more accountable.
"I think that if you ask most Floridians on Main Street they will be totally befuddled by the judicial appointments process," he said. "And when you have so much mystery surrounding a process, it erodes accountability."
"If I had my way I would support even bolder reform," he said.
Gaetz tried bolder last year, proposing to remove the Florida Bar from the process entirely. But the bill died in the Senate.
Included in Gaetz's bill is $500,000 for scholarships to women and minorities enrolled in Florida law schools who have expressed an interest in becoming a judge. This is a way to quell a repeated concern that the bench lacks diversity, Gaetz said.
The bill also eliminates the statewide nominating commission for judges of compensation claims, making these judges gubernatorial appointees selected from a list nominated by the judicial nominating commission for the First District Court of Appeal.
Katie Sanders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.