TALLAHASSEE — The Senate handed House Speaker Dean Cannon a partial victory Monday in his effort to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court but only after stripping out the most controversial measure.
Cannon wanted to expand the court from seven to 10 justices and create two five-member divisions, one for civil cases and one for criminal, allowing Republican Gov. Rick Scott to fill the vacancies.
But the concept was unacceptable to Democrats who saw it as a scheme to pack the court with justices sympathetic to Republican causes, as well as Senate Republicans who questioned the need for the change.
"It was a bold idea," said Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who amended the House resolution to get rid of the court split. "We should never be afraid to debate bold ideas."
Bogdanoff's amendment also eliminated a provision that would have guaranteed funding for the court equal to 2.25 percent of general revenue every year.
What's left? Senate confirmation of justices, a provision making it easier for the Legislature to reject court rules, and another giving the House access to now-confidential investigations of judicial misconduct in advance of impeachment proceedings.
The bill was a top priority of Cannon, who hinted at his desire to make changes to the court in his inaugural remarks as House speaker and staged a news conference to unveil the proposal.
"It's a win. It's absolutely a win," Cannon said after the Senates' 28-11 party-line vote.
The resolution, HJR 7111, now goes back to the House for a vote on the Senate amendment. Once passed, the constitutional ballot measure will need to be approved by 60 percent of Florida voters.
The House passed Cannon's broad plan April 15, but the measure floundered in the Senate with several Republican senators questioning the need for the split court as well as the possible expense.
"I can't breathe," Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said last week when noting that the proposal could cost $21 million.
Wavering Republican senators faced intense pressure from people on both sides of the issue.
"I could not deliver 24 votes," Senate President Mike Haridopolos told reporters Monday in a postvote briefing. "The person to blame is me."
Cannon had said he believed the split would make the court more efficient, but many senators said they saw no evidence to back up that claim. Some critics said they believed the scheme was payback for the court rejecting three constitutional amendments the Republican-led Legislature wanted on the November 2010 ballot.
Attorneys and former judges throughout the state panned the idea.
Seeing his pet project about to fail, Cannon apparently agreed to let his biggest idea go.
"I would prefer to have no bill, but this bill represents a good compromise," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who along with Storms, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, and David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, stood firm against the court split.
Democrats objected even without that element.
"We're going down a slippery slope," said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "What's the court doing wrong that we have to right?"
Court advocates breathed a huge sigh of relief that Cannon's resolution didn't get through as originally conceived.
"I'm very gratified that enough senators spoke up that they were able to defeat the court packing plan," said Raoul Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice from Miami who last week traveled to Tallahassee to lobby against Cannon's proposal. "I don't like it. I think it's unnecessary and wasteful to put something like that on the ballot. I don't think we need to reduce the percentage of the Legislature necessary to override a court rule. But compared to the other provisions, it's relatively innocuous."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.