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Lawyers, judges fight bills that dilute control

The president of the Florida Bar argues that dumping the current court system would set the state back 100 years.

A parade of lawyers and judges on Wednesday urged members of a House committee to back away from several bills that would drastically change the way Florida's judges are elected and courts are operated.

They predicted disaster for Floridians if legislators approve a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to seriously dilute the powers of the Florida Bar and force all of the state's judges and justices to get a two-thirds vote in merit retention elections.

Former Supreme Court Justices Alan Sundberg and Stephen Grimes were among those who defended the Bar and the merit selection and retention system used to appoint and retain justices of the Florida Supreme Court and all appellate courts.

Barry Richard, the lawyer who defended President Bush during the Florida election recount, said legislators would "re-politicize" the courts if they approve another proposal that would abolish judicial nominating commissions and return to electing all judges.

But Richard did say the state may need to "revisit and tweak the proper balance of the three branches of government."

Only a few speakers praised some of the proposals, saying lawyers have become an elitist group of people who write the rules and then play the game by their own rules. They said lawyers should have to face outside regulators the way doctors and other professionals do.

Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, sponsor of several of the bills, questioned the Bar's ability to regulate the behavior of lawyers.

Reading from an opinion written by Judge Alan R. Schwartz of the 3rd District Court of Appeal, Brummer noted that even some judges have complained that the Bar is too slow to act against some lawyers.

"We feel duty bound to report him (an errant lawyer) to the Florida Bar, (but) we have no illusions that this will have any practical effect," Schwartz wrote Feb. 14.

After listing a number of cases the court has referred to the Bar, Schwartz wrote that the Bar has not responded "concretely at all to the tide of uncivil and unprofessional conduct" displayed by the lawyers his court reported.

"The system was built for the players, the lawyers and judges," Ted Hires, founder of the Justice Coalition, a Jacksonville victims advocacy group, said Wednesday. "They think running for election the way you people did is dirty. I think running for election is good; it puts your business in the street, and you don't get to operate in a way that lets you cover your coattails."

Hires suggested that recent court rulings have "about put you folks out of business; y'all don't need to be here anymore. They're writing the laws for you."

But Florida Bar president Herman Russomanno argued that dumping the current court system would set Florida back 100 years.

"The Bar is second to none in the country in regulating its members," Russomanno boasted. "The Bar does a heck of a job."

Tallahassee lawyer George Meros Jr. said he was proud of some of the things the Bar has done but was ashamed of others when it has displayed arrogance.

The Bar has done "a miserable job" in curtailing advertising and solicitation to accident victims, he said.

Brummer asked the House Judiciary Oversight Committee to schedule another hearing so additional witnesses who waited through 4{ hours of testimony could have their say.

No date has been scheduled for a vote on the bills.