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House Speaker Dean Cannon wants to expand state Supreme Court to 10 justices, two panels

TALLAHASSEE — Under a dramatic overhaul of the state court system proposed by House Speaker Dean Cannon on Monday, Gov. Rick Scott could end up choosing three new Supreme Court justices.

Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he will unveil a bill this week that would replace the current seven-member Supreme Court with two five-member high courts, one to focus on civil cases and another to focus on criminal cases.

Cannon also wants to make investigations of judicial misconduct public record, and require that appeals judges receive 60 percent approval from voters to continue serving on the bench after their terms expire.

The changes would require at least 60 percent of Florida voters to approve a constitutional amendment.

Cannon said he suggested the changes to improve the efficiency and accountability of the court systems.

"This is a thoughtful, structural reform that I believe will improve the administration of justice, help unclog our civil dockets, and help make sure our criminal justice system doesn't make mistakes and administers justice fairly and swiftly," Cannon said.

It would be up to the House civil justice committee, working with other groups, to determine how the existing judges would be reassigned, Cannon said.

Texas and Oklahoma have similar systems, with the Supreme Court handling civil cases and a high court of appeals overseeing criminal matters.

Asked about Cannon's suggestion and the possibility of appointing three justices to the Supreme Court, Scott said: "I understand that the real value of that is we could accelerate some of the cases and things like that. So I'm going to look at it."

Scott's approval won't be needed because proposed constitutional amendments qualify for the ballot with a three-fifths vote by both chambers, or 24 senators and 72 representatives.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said his chamber would consider the bill.

"Speaker Cannon is a very smart man and has a great legal mind," Haridopolos said. "If it's important to him and he's passionate about it, we should give it an opportunity to pass."

House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West said existing courts should be funded properly before the number of judges is expanded.

"In my opinion, it's not a good time to expand the number (of) judges when the ones we have aren't properly funded," Saunders said in a prepared statement.

Cannon has targeted courts before, lashing out at justices in November during his swearing-in speech as House speaker.

In those remarks, Cannon said that five of the Supreme Court justices had "demolished" the hard work of the Legislature by striking three constitutional amendments proposed by state lawmakers off the 2010 ballot.

One would have granted extra tax breaks to first-time home buyers. A second would have undercut constitutional amendments proposed by a citizen initiative — and ultimately passed by voters — that change the way legislative and congressional districts are drawn. The third would have prohibited Florida from participating in the federal health care law.

"I am well aware of the criticism that I have received for raising questions about the constitutional authority of the Supreme Court with regard to removing legislatively proposed amendments from consideration by Florida voters," Cannon said Monday, but he noted that "the Legislature has the right and the responsibly to take a look at what is working in our state, and to correct what is not working."

Bruce Jacob, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law, said the two smaller courts would clearly weaken the power of the justices.

"He doesn't want the court to have the clout, the power to overturn legislation. That's not the way our government's supposed to operate," Jacob said. "We want a strong Supreme Court to buck up against the Legislature when it does something unconstitutional."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

House Speaker Dean Cannon wants to expand state Supreme Court to 10 justices, two panels 03/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 7, 2011 11:19pm]
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