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Picking sides and pointing fingers doesn't advance democracy

The Tampa Bay Times editorial, "In court threat, GOP hides behind silence," is an almost perfect example of judging a book by its author rather than by its content.

After several years of court decisions that encroached on the separation of powers, the Florida House of Representatives started a conversation by proposing some big, deliberately provocative ideas. Representatives, senators, lawyers, judges and others engaged in a continuous dialogue until we finally passed the compromise now known as Amendment 5.

The proposed amendment, which would bring our court system closer to the federal system, requires more of a conversation between the branches on rulemaking, allows Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices within a 90-day window, and increases transparency into the secretive process governing judicial misconduct. An altogether modest proposal, Amendment 5 will be a step in the right direction.

If you read the Tampa Bay Times editorial rant, you may be forgiven for thinking something insidious had been slipped into the amendment. The editorial called me out personally, impugning not only my position on Amendment 5, but also my entire speakership. Worse, according to the Times, not only was I wrong on the issues, but I was also now a bad person.

Of course, the real problem is that I am on the wrong "side." The Times agrees with the perceived liberal majority of the Supreme Court, and as a result every decision the court makes is correct, every critique is flawed, and every critic is driven by impure motives. The Times, and others of the self-selected intellectual 1 percent, have recast politics as a kind of Great Morality Play. Ideas, discussions and outcomes are now extraneous. Worse, it is a relativistic morality play — "good" and "bad" becoming indistinguishable from "us" and "them."

For the crime of having ideas different from theirs, I now rank, according to the Times, below former Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer, a man who was indicted on six felony counts and is now awaiting a criminal trial.

Reasonable people can disagree on issues and even disagree passionately. But when we skip the merits of the ideas and automatically dismiss them as ill-favored things wrought by ill-favored people, we enter a dangerous arena.

Although the Times has repeatedly mischaracterized my motives, the truth is that I have no personal quarrel with the Supreme Court of Florida. As the speaker of the House, I had formidable tools at my disposal that were far less cumbersome than the constitutional amendment process. If I had wanted to cause grief to the court, I could have done so in innumerable ways. But I did not. When efforts began to build a campaign around the merit retention elections of three Supreme Court justices, I stayed away. Only after being directly asked a question by a reporter did I comment, and when I did, I spoke the truth.

I think intertwining appellate courts and elections is a bad idea. In a constitutional republic, we recognize that not all issues should be resolved by an exercise of direct democracy. I don't support the election of state Supreme Court justices, and I think merit retention elections are less than ideal. I prefer something closer to the federal model. Call me a classicist, but I prefer the system designed by James Madison over the system designed by Talbot "Sandy'' D'Alemberte (the former president of the American Bar Association who, as a former legislator, helped to craft the merit retention process in the early 1970s).

But here is the thing — if you do put something before the voters, then you have to accept the consequences of that decision. In a democracy, sovereignty rests with the people. We do not condescend to voters and tell them the "proper" way to vote, and we most certainly do not, in the United States of America, tell anyone — much less a political party — that they cannot engage in political speech.

These decisions are in the hands of the voters who are quite capable of sorting out how they feel without endangering the Republic. Amendment 5 will pass or it will fail. The Florida Supreme Court justices on the ballot will be retained or defeated. Either way, we will all wake up the next morning, and life will go on. But what we will all have to decide going forward is whether we will continue to play this game of picking sides and pointing fingers. I think we can be better than that. I think our newspapers should strive to be better than that. We are, after all, a nation built by people who rejected the politics of personality in favor of a system of government built on the power of ideas.

Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, is the outgoing speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

Picking sides and pointing fingers doesn't advance democracy 10/08/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 8, 2012 9:23pm]
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