In an effort to avoid another situation where a renegade judge lobbies the Legislature for an opulent new courthouse or other special treatment, the Florida Supreme Court has gone too far in limiting the ability of state judges to talk with lawmakers and the governor. It's understandable that a court system stung by the misdeeds of former appellate Judge Paul Hawkes in securing a lavish $50 million courthouse would look for ways to prevent another embarrassment. But the Supreme Court has imposed a rule so stringent that it will cut off valuable conversations between local judges and area legislators, and the rule should be rescinded or modified to keep lines of communication with the judicial branch open.
The high court adopted the new rule in February, breaking with regular practice of first inviting reaction from the state's judiciary, although it did allow for 60 days to comment after the fact. Six of the seven members of the Florida Supreme Court approved the change, with Justice Fred Lewis dissenting. Since then, two influential groups representing the state's circuit and district court judges have submitted cogent objections, urging the court to reconsider.
Under the new rule, all judges and judicial groups are barred from recommending budget priorities to anyone in the legislative or executive branches, unless they make it clear that it is a wholly personal comment. The idea is for the court system to speak with one voice on the financial needs and priorities. Of course what the court has in mind is to prevent another case like the one involving Hawkes and his fellow judge on Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal, Judge Brad Thomas, who were both legislative staffers before being appointed to the bench by Gov. Jeb Bush.
Hawkes and Thomas lobbied lawmakers for years for a new courthouse that came to be known as the "Taj Mahal" for its price tag and luxury appointments. Hawkes resigned earlier this year to avoid a misconduct trial. Thomas is still a sitting judge. The scandal is an indictment of changes made while Bush was governor that politicized the process of picking judges.
But in an attempt at fixing the problem, the new rule interferes too much with judicial speech. In their written objections, both the Conference of Circuit Judges of Florida and the Florida Conference of District Court of Appeal Judges said the rule is so vague judges wouldn't know when they could face career-ending discipline. What if a judge complained to a legislator about the lack of a cost-of-living adjustment for judges since 2005, the DCA judges conference wondered. What if the same complaint were made to the press with the knowledge that it would be seen by lawmakers or the governor?
Local judges are often the best positioned to talk with their legislators about financial issues affecting court operations and the administration of justice. The stringency of the new rule might make lawmakers less responsive to the needs of the judicial branch, a result the justices would not want. The Supreme Court should revisit this issue and make reasonable adjustments.