The Florida House today is expected to debate a devious constitutional amendment to restructure the Florida Supreme Court that would undermine the independence of the judiciary. House Speaker Dean Cannon's brainstorm would divide the court into criminal and civil divisions, add three justices to the seven-member court and create two five-justice divisions. Aside from practical problems, this is a political ploy to increase legislative control over the judicial branch and pack the court with more conservative justices who would be appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Cannon claims that HJR 7111 addresses the high court's high workload, but the court handles its workload efficiently and has statistics to prove it. In 2001, the Supreme Court docket had a high of 1,544 pending cases. In 2010, that number was down to 881. There are workload issues in the lower courts, but not in the state's top court.
Opposition to the resolution is coming from highly informed and nonpartisan quarters, including the Florida Bar. The Bar notes that a split court was examined carefully and rejected by a 2001 Supreme Court workload commission appointed by the Legislature. Also persuasive is that Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady — a former U.S. representative and conservative Republican appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist — has not said anything in support of Cannon's plan. His silence speaks volumes.
Contrary to Cannon's claims, the Office of State Courts Administrator calculates that the changes would sharply increase the court's workload. It would expand the court's discretion to choose to hear cases, lift other current limits on the types of cases the court hears and would "overwhelm the court's existing resources," the courts administrator concludes. It estimates that 41 full-time employees would have to be added, which includes the three new justices, their staffs and all the extra personnel needed to handle the extra workload, for a total cost of more than $4 million. And all this extra money and staff would be needed even as the House proposes in its current budget to starve the court by reducing its staff attorney positions from 30 to 14.
Other sections of the resolution are equally pernicious. It would make it easier for the Legislature to overturn rules of practice and procedure adopted by the Supreme Court. Justices also would be newly subject to Senate confirmation, despite the short legislative session. And when the Senate is not in session, it could designate a committee to confirm justices, an arrangement ripe for political mischief.
Cannon attempts to buy support by combining the change with a guaranteed funding source for the courts of no less than 2.25 percent of general revenue. That would address some of the games the Legislature has played with the courts' budget. But there would still be ways to manipulate funding levels by expanding what is considered part of the judicial branch. This is essentially a bribe to buy into radical changes that would politicize the judiciary.
Reasonable legislators from both political parties should speak with one voice in support of an independent, impartial court system and reject this political interference.