Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon has made clear his disdain for the state Supreme Court ever since it bounced three of the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendments from the ballot last year. Now he's suggesting another amendment to weaken the Supreme Court and give Gov. Rick Scott the opportunity to appoint three new justices. The idea is half-baked, coming without any real study, and should be rejected — if not by the Legislature, then by Florida voters.
Cannon is proposing to divide the seven-justice court into two entities with five justices each. One court would hear civil cases and the other criminal cases. He's selling it as a nod to efficiency.
But that argument is specious. Creating a new appellate court is an expensive undertaking, particularly as the state faces a budget deficit of $3.6 billion. Lawmakers could make far better use of the money by restoring state court funding for support staffers and case managers that was cut in prior budget tightening. Those are the positions that demonstrably bring efficiency to court operations.
Then there are the legal issues that arise with two high courts exercising equal authority. Even if the cases are neatly divided between the civil and criminal sphere, there are issues that cross over. Due process, for example, can be an issue in both civil and criminal contexts. Will there be competing interpretations?
One stated goal for a Florida Supreme Court of Criminal Appeals is to speed death penalty cases along. Estimates are that about half of the current Supreme Court's workload consists of such cases. Conceivably, a new court would take over that work. But Supreme Court justices have not publicly asked for help from a new court. Instead, some justices have suggested a need to fix the flaws that lead to doubts over whether a person was rightly convicted or treated fairly by the system.
Former Justice Raoul Cantero, an appointee of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, noted in a recent article he co-wrote that since 1973 Florida has exonerated more inmates sentenced to death than any other state. And a big part of the reason is shoddy representation from the lawyers on a state registry. Were Cannon to get the Legislature to reopen the state's Northern Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, that problem would be largely solved.
Cannon may also want to wait for the findings of the Florida Innocence Commission — established by Chief Justice Charles Canady with the support of Senate President Mike Haridopolos — which is charged with suggesting ways to make sure that only truly guilty people are convicted, leading to fewer appeals.
Cannon has offered no study that lays out exactly why a dual Supreme Court would be beneficial or wise for Florida or worth the expense. Rather, the idea, and the initial support for it from Haridopolos and Scott, looks like one more power grab by a majority Republican leadership resentful of having its power checked by a co-equal branch of government. Lawmakers should deny Cannon the three-fifths vote he needs in each chamber to put it on the 2012 ballot. And if it gets on the ballot, voters should reject it.