Friday, February 23, 2018
Editorials

Reject legislative meddling with courts

Amendment 5 on the general election ballot has a long, complex summary of nearly 600 words that is purposely confusing to voters. Here's the bottom line: The amendment is an attack on the independence of the state judiciary by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. Amendment 5 would put further limits on the court's rulemaking power and give the state Senate a say in the appointment of high court justices. If the needed 60 percent of voters approve Amendment 5, the Legislature would gain dangerous new authority over the state's judicial branch. Voters should reject it and maintain the judiciary branch's independence.

This amendment reflects the vindictiveness of Republican legislative leaders such as outgoing House Speaker Dean Cannon. The court removed three amendments from the 2010 ballot that had been written by the Legislature, each by a 5-2 vote of the justices. In each case, the justices properly concluded the amendments were misleading or confusing to voters. It is instructive that two of the rejected amendments, one on tax breaks and one on health care, were later rewritten and are on the November ballot.

As retribution, Cannon denounced the court's actions and proposed splitting the Supreme Court into two courts in a scheme that would have given Gov. Rick Scott three new appointments. When that proved too radical even for other Republican lawmakers, Amendment 5 emerged instead.

The proposed amendment would give the state Senate the power to confirm or reject future justices to the Florida Supreme Court. Currently, the governor appoints a new justice from a list recommended by a Judicial Nominating Commission. This process was designed to reduce partisan political influence in the selection of the judiciary. Under the proposed amendment, the Senate would have 90 days to confirm that appointee or demand that someone else be appointed.

While the federal system operates with Senate confirmation of judges, Florida uses the nominating commissions to balance the governor's appointment power. The state system remains less political than one that relies on elected lawmakers. And adding the input of the state Senate would be inefficient, since the Legislature isn't in session year-round when appointments might be made.

Amendment 5 also would let the Legislature repeal court rules by a simple majority vote rather than the current two-thirds vote. There is a good reason the state Constitution gives the Florida Supreme Court the power to enact rules to further the administration of justice: It's the institution most familiar with court-related issues. And the proposed amendment's provision to give the House speaker access to confidential investigative files of the Judicial Qualifications Commission — the state body that reviews misconduct complaints against sitting judges — is just another power grab. The files could be used as a tool of harassment.

The Florida Bar on Tuesday announced it opposes Amendment 5. Just say no to the Legislature's heavy-handed attempt to erode the independence of the state's judiciary. On Amendment 5, the Tampa Bay Times recommends a no vote.

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