House Speaker Dean Cannon's purely political play to split the Florida Supreme Court in half continues to be a solution in search of a problem. At least five Republican senators — and possibly more — have courageously refused to back Cannon's thinly veiled retribution against the court. Those Republicans, and the Senate's Democrats, should stand firm for another week lest Cannon's scheme runs roughshod over judicial independence. More senators should show the same courage.
Cannon, R-Winter Park, wants to ask voters in November 2012 to amend the state Constitution to split the seven-justice state Supreme Court into two five-justice divisions. One would handle criminal matters, the other civil matters. Most significantly, Cannon proposes five of the current justices would make up the criminal bench. The other two current justices — along with three almost surely conservative appointees by Gov. Rick Scott — would assume the civil bench, where justices hold sway over a host of litigation between powerful interests, including lawsuits involving the Legislature.
Cannon claims he is trying to address the court's workload, but that's a specious argument. The court's workload has actually shrunk in the past decade, from a high of 1,544 pending cases in 2001 to 881 in 2010. The time spent processing death penalty appeals has also shrunk. What's more, the Office of State Courts Administrator calculates that other changes in the legislation, greatly expanding the court's discretion to hear cases, would overwhelm current resources and require up to 41 additional full-time employees. A far better use of that money would be to restore hundreds of support positions at backlogged trial courts that have been cut in recent years.
The last time a split Supreme Court was considered, in 2001 by a Supreme Court Workload Study Commission, it was summarily rejected. The only semblance of logic in Cannon's plan is that a two-division Supreme Court might better utilize the Taj Mahal, the controversial and expensive new 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse in Tallahassee. But it is hardly rational to throw more taxpayer money after bad.
It's clear the driving factor in Cannon's plan remains his anger that the Supreme Court last year threw off the ballot three constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature. Before this session, Cannon had expressed more modest ambitions, such as changing the court's purview over ballot questions. But that plan has now been subsumed thanks in part to Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who disappointingly capitulated and is trying to twist fellow Republican senators' arms.
Cannon's plan needs at least 24 votes in the 40-member chamber. The fact that HJR 7111 did not come to a vote on the Senate floor Friday is encouraging and suggests more Republicans have told Haridopolos they stand in opposition along with courageous Republican Sens. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, Ronda Storms of Valrico, Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla of Miami and David Simmons of Altamonte Springs. They clearly understand that maintaining three independent branches of government is more important than satisfying one House speaker's vendetta.