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Senate committee passes Supreme Court overhaul plan

TALLAHASSEE — With budget talks between the House and Senate strained, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander extended an olive branch to House Speaker Dean Cannon on Monday: committee passage of Cannon's overhaul of the Florida Supreme Court.

Alexander attached Cannon's court revamp proposal as an amendment to a Senate bill that would give the Legislature greater control over court rules, SJR 2084.

Will it help with budget talks?

"We hope it will," Alexander said after the meeting. "It's, as it's been described to me, the speaker's No. 1 priority."

Facing questions from Budget Committee members after he introduced the amendment, Alexander repeatedly noted the changes are part of a proposed constitutional amendment that will require approval by 60 percent of Florida's voters to take effect.

Colleagues backed Alexander's attempt to ease relations with Cannon.

"I understand there's a budget out there that has to be dealt with, and it has to be dealt with sooner rather than later," Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said during discussion. "This is what Speaker Cannon wants."

Fasano voted in favor of the measure to keep budget talks moving. But in an interview after the 15-5 committee vote, Fasano said he would vote against the measure on the floor.

And he likely won't be alone among the Senate's 28 Republicans, which may make it difficult to collect the three-fifths vote (i.e., 24) necessary to put the amendment on the ballot. The House passed the measure last week.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, voted in favor of the bill in committee, but said he would need to be convinced to vote for it on the floor.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, voted for the bill in committee, but declined to discuss his reservations about it afterward.

The plan has been widely criticized by attorneys and judges.

Among other things, the overhaul expands the number of Supreme Court justices from seven to 10 and divides the court into two five-member divisions, one for criminal cases and one for civil.

The three justices with most seniority, all appointed by a Democratic governor, would go to the criminal side. Republican appointees would remain on the civil side, where legislative issues would be considered. Gov. Rick Scott would fill the empty seats.

The "split court" concept has prompted charges from Democrats that the plan is more about stacking the court with people favorable to Republican causes than efficiency, which supporters say is the reason for the changes.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, described the bill as one that will be negotiated.

"The splitting of the court seems to be the most divisive issue," she said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, emphatically opposes the proposal.

"I just think it's the wrong thing to do, especially in a year like this, to create new bureaucracies, a new court, new justices, new clerks, new marshals, new lobbyists, while we're cutting everything else," he said. "Nobody's made the case to me as to how it's going to improve the flow of cases."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Senate committee passes Supreme Court overhaul plan 04/25/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 25, 2011 9:47pm]
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