TALLAHASSEE — After emotional testimony in which Democrats accused Republicans of sinister motives and Republicans said they simply wanted to expedite justice, the House of Representatives on Friday passed a bill that proposes a significant overhaul of the state Supreme Court.
"This quite simply is an immature, ill-advised and arrogant attempt by the leadership to pack the Supreme Court," said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.
"If you can't change the rules, you change the refs. And that's what this bill is doing," said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.
Democrats argued that the measure is simply about trying to establish a panel sympathetic to Republican causes so they can get favorable rulings when legislative matters end up before the court. In particular, they are concerned GOP lawmakers will try to push through the changes before the court reviews the redrawing of legislative districts in 2012.
HJR 7111 asks voters to consider a constitutional amendment that would add three justices to the Supreme Court and create two divisions, one for civil cases and one for criminal. The three justices with most seniority, all appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, would go to the criminal side. Republican appointees would remain on the civil side, where legislative issues would be considered. Republican Gov. Rick Scott would fill the empty seats. The measure also calls for the Senate to confirm the governor's picks, and expands court funding. Sixty percent of Florida voters would have to approve the amendment for it to become part of the Constitution.
Attorneys and former judges have generally panned the idea.
"No bar association has stood up and said this is a good idea," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "If there's a miracle that's in the asking today, it's that every member in this body realize that we do not have the critical support of the very institution that we're seeking to make huge changes to."
No such miracle occurred, and the resolution passed along party lines.
"I'm sure the pill mill drug dealers don't want reform but we're reforming them," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Destin.
The court needs to be more efficient, particularly in death penalty cases, he said, suggesting that perhaps in some instances the suits need an "expressway."
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, said he would vote in favor of the bill "to stick it to every death row inmate in the state of Florida."
Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said the proposal makes the selection of judges more transparent by requiring Senate confirmations. As it is now, she said, a judicial nomination commission works "behind closed doors" to come up with its recommendations for the governor, who makes final selections.
Democrats pointed out that by the court's own analysis, there is no problem with efficiency, citing figures that show in 2010, nearly 90 percent of cases were resolved in less than one year.
It's clear the changes are all about politics, said Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach. Already, he said, there have been "whispers" that Republicans want to put the proposal before voters in advance of the November 2012 general election so the new court would be in place for redistricting.
Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, vehemently rejected that notion. He pointed out that putting it on the ballot before then would require a separate bill and 90 votes in the House, which means Democrats would have to join 81 Republicans in supporting it. He said suggesting that the GOP is seeking political appointments to the court is disrespectful of judges, who are supposed to be politically neutral.
Republicans also dismissed estimates from the court that it would cost $17 million to move the Supreme Court to the new First District Court of Appeal building in Tallahassee, proposed by the bill.
Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, said all it will take to facilitate the move is to change the building signs and door locks.
The proposal still has no companion in the Senate. On Thursday, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, introduced an amendment that would add the House proposal to a bill sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, calling for Senate confirmation of justices. But Flores withdrew that amendment before it could be debated in the Senate Rules Committee on Friday.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.