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Cash-register justice offends

Marriages of convenience aren't necessarily made in hell, but they have a way of winding up there. That would be a proper destination for the unholy union between the religious right and the so-called "tort reform" crowd, who are pushing legislation to politicize Florida courts and dismantle the Florida Bar.

Both may think they have a mutual interest in the kind of push-button judiciary that Rep. Fred Brummer's Armageddon amendment (HJR 627) would create. A Supreme Court Justice who needs a two-thirds vote to stay in office has an incentive to be timid about lots of things. Abortion, death sentences and church-state issues are some examples that come to mind.

But the many good citizens who consider themselves religious conservatives have nothing in common with the business lobbies when it comes to the decisions an honest judge should make about a faulty tire that left someone's mother dead or crippled. The business lobbies are not their friends when it comes to liability for a mugging in some dimly lit commercial parking lot. No churchgoers were consulted about the Boeing Amendment to the 1999 tort bill, whose purpose was to leave air crash victims penniless if the plane was more than 20 years old.

Who needs an independent judiciary? You do.

Brummer's bill turns out to have some stranger baggage than even the transparent tampering with judicial integrity.

One provision would oblige the Legislature to pay only for "courts created by the Constitution." This appears to be in considerable conflict with an amendment, which voters approved barely two years ago, that requires state funding for the entire "state court system."

Another would expose a criminal defendant who is convicted or the losing side in a civil lawsuit to being assessed "the full cost of all services utilized and expenses incurred" by the court that tried the case.

That apparently is meant to include not only the housing and feeding of jurors, but also the electricity bill, debt service on the courthouse, the judge's salary and even the cost of cleaning his robe.

They'd need a full-time CPA for each court. As it happens, Brummer is one.

Such cash-register justice offends, of course, not only the federal Constitution but also the Declaration of Rights in Florida's Constitution, which says "justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay." Whoever wrote Brummer's legislation forgot to change that part.

Circuit Judge Stan Morris of Gainesville illustrated the practical difficulties to bemused members of the House Committee on Judicial Oversight at a hearing last week. Who, he asked, would be first in line for money when a criminal is convicted: the state, or a victim who deserves restitution? In an adoption case, Morris pointed out, "Everybody's the winner." So who pays?

We may never know the real source of these curious provisions, but it is a fair suspicion that they emanate from senior legislators who would rather cut taxes than pay for the court system as the voters have told them to.

If the committee's hearing did not shed light on the origin, it did make clear where they're going: nowhere. Even Republican members were choking over Brummer's amendment. Brummer conceded it has no immediate future.

But it's more than just a trial balloon; it's providing cover for his separate legislation, already approved for the House floor, that would let the governor appoint all nine members of each judicial nominating commission. There's more than one way, you see, to tame a judiciary.

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None of Florida's grown-up legislatures would have taken such stuff seriously enough to even give it a hearing. If you're wondering what's wrong with this one, think term limits. They're what left Tom Feeney with no senior Republican rival for the House speakership and provided 35 Republican freshmen for Majority Leader Mike Fasano's close-order drills.

Tom Rossin, the Senate Democratic leader, is proposing an amendment to extend term limits from eight years to 12, to take effect only after all present legislators have been term-limited out.

Rossin is pitching it as campaign finance reform. House members would serve four-year terms instead of two, senators for six years instead of four, so they wouldn't have to raise campaign money as often.

Sad to say, he's right about that part of it. There is no other campaign finance control that this Legislature would support.

"There are other reasons to do this," says Rossin. "One of the reasons for the Senate being the more deliberative body is that we aren't looking over our shoulders every two years."

True again. Even so, it might be easier to sell voters an income tax than to sell them that.