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House push to remake Florida Supreme Court slows in Senate

TALLAHASSEE — Revamping the Supreme Court is a top priority for House Speaker Dean Cannon.

But the bills he backs to remake the state's highest tribunal face resistance in the Senate.

"Several of us made very clear we would not support the bills in their current form," Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday. "We hope there continue to be negotiations."

Cannon, though, remains optimistic.

"It's only Tuesday of Week 5," he said of the differences between the chambers. "There's a greater chance that everything gets worked out."

In his opening remarks this legislative session, Cannon, a Republican from Winter Park, rapped the Supreme Court for what he believes was infringement on the legislative branch's powers.

In particular, Cannon is irritated that the court struck down the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendments for the November ballot that fought federal health care reform and a voting districts measure, and provided tax breaks to first-time home buyers.

The courts ruled the ballot summaries for those amendments were misleading.

Cannon's most significant effort at retribution: a proposed constitutional amendment that would split the Supreme Court into two bodies, one for civil cases and one for criminal cases. So far, there's no companion for that measure in the Senate, though Flores said she expects her committee will introduce one next week.

"We're still trying to figure out the approach we want to take on it," she said.

Other bills backed by Cannon would:

• Require judges to receive 60 percent of the votes in an election to stay on the bench.

• Make investigations of judicial misconduct public record.

• Make it easier for the Legislature to overturn Supreme Court rules and more difficult for the court to reinstate those rules.

• Change how court appointments are made.

Flores sponsored a Senate bill to address the 60 percent vote requirement in election of judges. But she removed it from the Judiciary Committee's agenda on Monday and said she might not bring it back.

"There's a lot of concern over that issue," she said. Although Cannon's other proposals moved forward this week, they faced harsh criticism.

Opponents of making judicial investigations public said confidentiality makes it easier to get judges to step down and avoid costly litigation, and allows people to lodge complaints without fear of reprisal.

Those concerns resonated with senators on the Judiciary Committee.

"If this bill doesn't change, I won't even take it to the floor," said bill sponsor Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. "I will jealously guard the sovereignty if you will, particularly, the confidentiality, of our judicial system. I recognize the need for their protection."

The committee also voted Monday to introduce a bill that would allow the attorney general rather than the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar to select some members of the Judicial Nominating Committee, which forwards names to the governor for appointment to the bench. The bill also would end the terms of all current members of the committee and allow Gov. Rick Scott to pick replacements.

Opponents said the concept politicizes judicial appointments.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, called the bill a "slap in the face" of the judicial system.

"This is unconscionable that we would allow the governor to have all of the appointments and that we terminate the existing members," Joyner said.

Unrelated to Cannon's rework of the court, the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee considered a bill on Tuesday that would allow the Senate to confirm Supreme Court appointments.

Bill sponsor Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, D-Fort Lauderdale, said it's a way to ensure checks and balances, because the governor appoints all the justices.

"One hundred percent of the power is in the hands of one man," she said.

The measure passed by a 9-2 vote. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, cast one of the no votes, expressing discomfort with the motives behind all the court proposals.

"We're going after the Supreme Court because they haven't ruled exactly the way we thought they should on all the amendments," he said. "I don't think we should think in a punitive fashion about people that don't do everything exactly the way the Legislature wants it done. I fear that a lot of what we're doing this year can be interpreted that way."

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

House push to remake Florida Supreme Court slows in Senate 04/05/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 9:34pm]
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