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Susan F. Schaeffer

Court bill expensive, unnecessary, dangerous

Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon is championing a bad bill that would split the state Supreme Court. It is a horrible idea uninformed by facts and would hamstring an independent judiciary.

Cannon's Court Revision Bill (HJR 7111) proposes many new things for the state's high court. But the bill's costliest piece — and the most unnecessary — is how it would take the current seven-member court and divide it into two distinct divisions, one civil with five justices who would hear only civil cases and one criminal with five justices who would hear only criminal cases. No crossover from division to division would be allowed, not even to help out.

Did the court's chief justice or any other justice ask for this? No. Did the Florida Bar suggest that this be done to improve timeliness of their appeals? No.

Cannon says this will make the Supreme Court more efficient, because of its "high workload." This is unsubstantiated. In reality, filings in the Supreme Court are down 13 percent over the last 10 years.

Cannon next tries to justify this dual court division by saying that his staff analysis shows that death penalty cases have increased since the Supreme Court Workload Study Commission (which specifically rejected two divisions) issued its report in 2001, and that this dual court system will allow these death penalty decisions to be decided more quickly.

This is a ruse. First, death penalty filings have been reduced 37 percent in the last 10 years. Further, the median time for the Supreme Court to process a capital case has improved 17 percent from 2001 to 2010. So neither increased numbers nor slower disposition times justifies this bill.

There are two reasons for delay that neither the Florida courts nor Legislature can control: federal appeals and unsigned warrants. Federal courts hear appeals after Florida courts are finished, and they take as long as they need to resolve state death cases. Further, when state and federal appeals are exhausted, the case is ready for a warrant. There are presently 50 such cases. Only the governor can sign an execution warrant.

So what is really driving this bill? It certainly isn't cost containment. It is estimated it will cost nearly $2.3 million annually for the three extra justices, their staff and the staff necessary to implement and run separate civil and criminal divisions. An additional workload cost of $1.4 million annually will be necessary to expand the court's jurisdiction. Nonrecurring costs, including moving and facilities reconstruction costs to accommodate the new occupants, are estimated to be a whopping $17.2 million. When the budget is so tight, and with cuts to so many programs, it is an outrage to spend this kind of money on something that doesn't need fixing.

This is a brief discussion of only one part of the Cannon bill, and there is much more that is offensive. For example, the Legislature has the audacity to tell the present court who will serve in the criminal division and who will serve in the civil division.

It is clear that the Legislature is trying to keep justices previously appointed by Democratic governors out of the civil division where legislative decisions, including those involving reapportionment, will be made. That is the real reason the Legislature doesn't want the chief justice, after discussion with the justices, to decide the division in which they would work.

There is no valid reason — none — to make these costly changes to the Supreme Court. And that might be why there is no companion bill in the Senate.

The real reasons to propose these massive changes are political, pure and simple. It's happened before in Florida history with Democrats. And now we see Republicans promoting their own party's interests to the detriment of an independent judiciary — the third co-equal branch of government. The bill is dangerous.

Senior Judge Susan F. Schaeffer sat on the 6th Circuit (Pinellas-Pasco) Court for 23 years, during which time she was chief judge for six years. She was known statewide for her expertise in the death penalty field and for her work as chairwoman of the Trial Court Budget Commission.

Court bill expensive, unnecessary, dangerous 04/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 7:54pm]

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