1. Opinion

Dockery: Lawmakers renew attacks on the courts

Published Nov. 19, 2015

Florida legislators aren't feeling the love from the courts so they're taking action — again. Based on their dismal rate of success with past efforts to interfere in judicial matters, it might be advisable to drop the case.

The latest skirmish? Redistricting. The crime? Several judges and the Florida Supreme Court have ruled against them.

Some legislators decried them as activists. Some called for their impeachment, and others threatened to subpoena them. One filed a lawsuit in federal court to throw out the Fair Districts amendments passed overwhelmingly by voters.

This isn't the first time legislative feathers were ruffled. In 2010, the Florida Supreme Court removed three proposed constitutional amendments from the ballot. Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, was livid.

Soon after, a joint resolution appeared that would have turned the seven-member court into two five-member courts — one for criminal cases and one for civil cases. Five of the seven justices at the time would have been placed on the criminal court, allowing the governor to pack the civil court with three new appointees — a majority. Presumably his appointees would share his conservative ideology.

Any talk of court packing, retribution or partisanship was met with feigned indignation. The justification for the drastic judicial change was to reduce the case backlog — interesting since the Supreme Court had no backlog problem and the lower courts that did were being refused additional judges.

A stripped-down version without the Supreme Court breakup appeared on the ballot in 2012. It gave the Legislature more oversight in judicial rulemaking and in the judicial nominating process — likely violating the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.

Apparently the voters agreed that this was improper overreach and soundly defeated it. Not only didn't it reach the 60 percent threshold, it failed to reach a simple majority, receiving a paltry 37 percent of the vote.

There was a Plan B. The Republican Party of Florida openly worked against the retention of the three Florida Supreme Court justices it considered liberal.

The justices were all retained. Justice Barbara Pariente received 68 percent of the vote, followed by Justice Peggy Quince with 67.7 percent and Fred Lewis with 67.5 percent. Not even close.

In 2014, the Legislature put another constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow an outgoing governor to make prospective appointments to the high court instead of the incoming governor. With at least three justices getting close to mandatory retirement age, they wanted "clarity" in the law.

Voters didn't like that scheme either, voting it down with only 48 percent, far short of the 60 percent needed.

Now here we are again trying to show the judges who's boss. The bills HJR 197 and SJR 322 are a priority of the incoming House speaker, Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. They would amend the Constitution by limiting appellate court judges and Supreme Court justices to two six-year terms.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

What problem are they trying to address? Voters have the ability to remove them from the bench now through a retention vote.

Here's why it's a bad idea:

• It smells like retaliation. We lose good, experienced judges and justices arbitrarily.

• It might be more difficult to attract good applicants with lawyers unwilling to give up their practices for a short-term opportunity.

• There would be a tremendous loss of institutional knowledge, particularly important at the appellate level.

• More frequent governor appointments would skew the ideology and independence of the courts.

If the measure makes it through the House (likely) and the Senate (iffy), it would still need to win 60 percent of the popular vote in the 2016 election.

Perhaps just having it on the ballot serves a purpose — to drive voter turnout on the promise of getting more conservative judges on the bench. Or maybe those pushing the effort are hoping to demagogue the highly popular term limits that they bemoan for themselves.

By respecting the tenets of separation of powers and checks and balances, voters have consistently rejected legislative attempts to interfere with the judicial branch. It's highly likely they will do so again.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at


This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge