TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Dean Cannon's bold plan to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court gathered steam Thursday, as a Republican-controlled House committee endorsed the proposed changes and Democrats opposed them, as did the Florida Bar and some judges.
Cannon wants to break the seven-member Supreme Court into two separate five-member tribunals, one to handle only civil cases and the other to hear only criminal cases, similar to systems in Texas and Oklahoma. That would give Gov. Rick Scott three appointments to the state's highest court.
Cannon's plan would require the three most senior justices — Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — to join the criminal appeals court.
The speaker, a Winter Park lawyer, also wants to make public investigative files of judges that are now secret and require appellate court judges to get at least 60 percent of the vote, not a mere majority, to stay in office. Cannon has faulted the court's "unelected justices" for tossing three legislative proposals off the 2010 ballot.
The bills' sponsor, Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, says the Supreme Court spends too much time handling death penalty appeals at the expense of other cases that can languish on dockets for years. He also said death penalty cases take too long to resolve, noting that 34 inmates have been on death row in Florida for more than 30 years.
"Our court needs help," Eisnaugle said.
"They can handle the caseload they have," said Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-North Miami Beach. "For some reason this body feels the need to tell them how to do their business."
The House Civil Justice Committee approved the split Supreme Court proposal on a party-line 10-5 vote. It now moves to the House Judiciary Committee before hitting the House floor.
Cannon's three-pronged plan has a long way to go. It also requires approval by three-fifths of the members of both houses and 60 percent of voters at the next general election in 2012. His plan has not been endorsed by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who has said he's "all ears" about the proposals.
Earlier Thursday, former Gov. Reubin Askew, a Democrat, and Joseph Hatchett, an Askew appointee to the Supreme Court, sharply criticized Cannon's proposals as improper political meddling by the Legislature.
"I wish they didn't have this feeling of trying to remake the whole judiciary," Askew told members of Leadership Florida. As governor from 1971-79, Askew created the current system of merit selection of Florida judges.
A fourth bill by Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, would require all of the governor's judicial appointments to the Supreme Court and to the five District Courts of Appeal to be confirmed by the state Senate. It passed on a party-line 10-5 vote. That bill would also abolish appeals court-level judicial nominating commissions, which recommend finalists to the governor.
McBurney's bill also requires voter approval in 2012. He said the bill would improve accountability for a governor's judicial choices. But Democrats criticized that bill as politicizing the courts, and the Florida Bar said abolishing nominating panels would be a step backward.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.