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Florida Supreme Court overhaul hits resistance in Senate

TALLAHASSEE — A bill to overhaul the state Supreme Court has run into steep resistance in the Florida Senate, raising doubts about whether the top priority of House Speaker Dean Cannon will pass this session.

The proposal has become tied to a series of other high-profile bills, including the budget, which is the only measure legislators are required to pass.

On Thursday, Senate leaders spent the day cornering Republican colleagues on the floor of the Senate to persuade them to vote for the speaker's pet bill.

They have convinced some members who previously opposed it to sign on by agreeing to withdraw an anti-union bill that would have banned unions from using payroll deduction to collect their dues and use the money for political causes.

"They have been able to pull some people off," said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who opposes Cannon's plan. "It's very, very close."

That support may be in jeopardy, though, with the backers of the union measure reviving it as amendments to other measures.

Among other things, Cannon's plan calls for expanding 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.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he had become convinced the concept is worth backing, particularly because it proposes a constitutional amendment requiring support of 60 percent of Florida voters.

"This is an issue that is important to the House," Negron said. "I believe that if one of the legislative branches believes an issue is important to go before the voters, that's appropriate as part of the negotiation process."

A Senate vote on the bill, which has already passed the House, could come as early as today. If senators approve HJR 7111, the proposed amendment would appear on the November 2012 ballot.

The Senate needs 24 of the 40 senators to pass the bill. Democrats in the House voted against the bill, with many saying it was an attempt to stack the court with judges sympathetic to Republican causes. The Senate has 12 Democrats, but one, Larcenia Bullard from Miami, is absent with an illness. It's not clear if all Senate Democrats will oppose the bill, but at least five of the chamber's 28 Republicans have said they will vote against it in its current form.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos acknowledged "there's some real hesitations on it" among senators and expected that some changes might be proposed to the House plan before the Senate votes on it.

Republican Sen. David Simmons, an attorney from Altamonte Springs, said he planned to introduce an amendment to kill the split-court plan.

"I believe there are elements of this bill as it currently is that make sense," he said.

Those elements include requiring Senate approval for appointment of Supreme Court justices and making investigations of judicial misconduct available to lawmakers considering impeachment, he said.

"The portion of it that does not make sense is the portion relating to the Supreme Court division," he said. "That does not need to be in there."

Storms said she would be inclined to vote for the bill if that was removed.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican from Miami, indicated he felt the same, calling it a "radical overhaul of the Supreme Court into this untested, unproven model."

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said the Legislature has enough to worry about without dealing with the court issue.

"I don't think we came in here with the idea that we have to do massive reform of the court system," she said. "There doesn't appear to be any problem, the case load has been reduced and here we are meddling in the business of the Supreme Court when nobody from the court system has come and asked use to do that."

Cannon unveiled the proposal the first week of the legislative session, saying it would improve the court's efficiency. But four months earlier, in his inaugural remarks as House speaker, he rapped the five justices who rejected three proposed constitutional amendments that the Republican-led Legislature wanted on the November 2010 ballot, saying the judges had "demolished" the work of the Legislature.

"Is it the role of the judicial branch to decide political questions?" he asked.

He suggested Florida's judicial branch is among "threats to our liberties." There was no mention of efficiency.

Cannon said Thursday that his plan is good policy.

"The legislative branch has done major reform even in the last six years and in the years preceding that. The executive branch has seen all kinds of reform," he said. "The judicial branch hasn't been reformed in over a quarter of a century."

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

Florida Supreme Court overhaul hits resistance in Senate 04/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 28, 2011 9:45pm]
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