TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators took the final step Wednesday to put an amendment on the November ballot that asks voters to decide whether to give Florida's governor new powers to make prospective appointments to the state Supreme Court.
The proposed constitutional amendment, SJR 1188, was approved by a 74-45 partisan vote in the Florida House following its Senate passage. The amendment will be the third one on the ballot and must be approved by at least 60 percent of voters on Election Day to become law.
While Republicans defended the proposal, Democrats opposed it because it would give the governor the power to pick three justices who, by coincidence, will retire on the same day the next governor's term ends, which is Jan. 8, 2019. Both sides expect to use the issue in the November governor's race to rally support for either Republican Gov. Rick Scott or possible Democratic challenger Charlie Crist.
Justices are required to retire at age 70 but can continue to serve on the bench until the end of their six-year term. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — the court's liberal wing — will each turn 70 sometime during the next governor's term, and their six-year terms will end on the same day the candidate elected in 2018 is inaugurated in 2019.
The state Constitution is unclear about whether the incoming or outgoing governor should make the appointment when the vacancy occurs on inauguration day. The proposal is designed to put some certainty into the law by giving governors a "prospective appointment" as part of the state's merit selection system used for appellate courts.
The proposal, initiated by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, is necessary to avoid "workload interruptions" after the justices retire, said Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha. The law requires that the Judicial Nominations Commission have up to 60 days to recommend three candidates for each of the vacancies that occur when the justices retire and then gives the governor 60 days to make a choice.
"We don't want to have gaps in service,'' Metz explained.
Democrats suggested that the current system is working fine and is unlikely to result in a constitutional crisis that Republicans warned about.
"Once you know there is going to be a vacancy, by all means start that judicial nominating process but the person that makes the selection should be the governor who is the governor for that coming term,'' said Rep. Jim Waldman, R-Coconut Creek.
But Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, said "a lame duck is not the same thing as a dead duck" and the governor should have the power to appoint for his entire term.
Metz said the timing is important. "It's better to be doing this now when we don't know who the next governor is than to do it when we know what governor will be making the decisions," he said.
Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said the measure "brings the common-sense practices of the private sector to the judicial system" and "will only further respect the integrity of the judicial process."
Waldman said that while he doesn't believe the amendment will win enough support to become law, Republicans "will use it to draw their members to the polls.'' But, he added, both sides can ask the question, "Who do you want to pick the justices, Rick Scott or Charlie Crist?''
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas