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House Speaker Dean Cannon scales back court reform proposal

TALLAHASSEE — Facing backlash from judges, lawyers and senators, House Speaker Dean Cannon on Wednesday eviscerated his own proposal for reforming the state's courts, dropping suggestions that judges receive 60 percent of votes to remain on the bench and that investigations of judges be made public.

He also altered his proposal for two five-member Supreme Courts, one to handle civil cases and one for criminal. Instead, Cannon wants to keep a single Supreme Court, but expand it from seven to 10 justices, with criminal and civil divisions.

In a news conference announcing the changes, Cannon said he intended the original proposals as a starting point.

"We worked hard to take input from the various stakeholders, members of the bench and the bar, and proceed in a thoughtful, focused way based on the feedback we've gotten as well as re-examining our own proposals to make them better," he said.

His new concept for the Supreme Court would allow the governor to pick a chief justice for each division from the current judges, and the position of chief justice for the overall court would rotate between the two division chiefs every four years. Cannon said this approach means it would be easier to manage such unified functions as administration of the branch and attorney discipline. The new court, he said, would be located in the First District Court of Appeal building in Tallahassee, the so-called Taj Mahal.

"The geography and the quality, if you will, of the first DCA courthouse makes that an appropriate place," Cannon said. "They have two courtrooms. They have ample room for the 10 justices."

As for investigations of judges, Cannon still wants to increase access to those by the Legislature, but not make them available to the public. That, he said, addresses concerns that ending confidentiality altogether would keep people from lodging complaints.

Cannon, R-Winter Park, also suggested two new proposals. One would expand the ability of the Supreme Court to hear appeals by removing a requirement that cases only go to the high court if there's a direct conflict between two district courts of appeal. And he wants to address funding concerns by providing a minimum court appropriation each year equivalent to 2.25 percent of general revenue. This year's funding equals 1.94 percent of general revenue.

Cannon also includes a measure that would allow the Senate to confirm the governor's appointments to the Supreme Court, and scales back a measure that would give the Legislature final say over court rules.

Most of the changes would require constitutional amendments approved by at least 60 percent of Florida voters.

Cannon has made remaking the court a top priority, rapping the Supreme Court for what he sees as an infringement on the Legislature's powers. He is irritated that the court last year struck three constitutional amendments proposed by the body from the November ballot. The courts ruled ballot summaries for the amendments were misleading.

As policymakers, Cannon said Wednesday, legislators have "the right" and "responsibility" to look at what is and isn't working and make improvements.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Bar said the group is evaluating Cannon's proposals.

Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, said he has concerns with legislation that "interferes with the court's rulemaking authority," and doesn't believe the Supreme Court needs more justices. He called the legislation an "attack on the third branch of government, the judiciary."

House Speaker Dean Cannon scales back court reform proposal 04/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 10:11pm]
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