Amendment 3 has been sold by Republican legislators as a solution to a pending crisis on the Florida Supreme Court. Three of seven justices are expected to retire simultaneously in January 2019, just as a new governor could be taking office. But the amendment placed on the Nov. 4 ballot by the Legislature that would give outgoing governors carte blanche to pack the court on their way out the door is unacceptable. Amendment 3 is one more legislative attempt to push partisanship into the court system, and Florida voters should reject it.
At issue is the timing laid out in the Florida Constitution. The governor starts a four-year term on the same January day that can be the last day for Supreme Court justices' six-year terms if they have reached their mandatory retirement age of 70 years old. That means a governor who was just sworn in can be immediately tasked with nominating a replacement justice — usually a monthslong process.
Republican legislators contend there could be a major crisis in 2019 when three of the seven justices — R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — are expected to retire. Their solution: Let the outgoing governor name replacements before he leaves office. In 2019, that outgoing governor will be either term-limited Republican Rick Scott or Democrat Charlie Crist, who would be leaving office if he lost re-election or chose not to run. Neither scenario is compelling. Outgoing governors who are unaccountable to the voters should not decide replacements for justices as they pack to leave. That duty belongs to the man or woman just elected to lead for the next four years.
There are simpler and less dramatic solutions available. Already, the court rules allow retiring justices to stay on to finish caseloads and authorize the chief justice to temporarily promote appellate judges to work at the Supreme Court if the need arises.
And in 1998, two governors cooperated on another solution. The Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission began vetting candidates under outgoing Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, but Chiles and incoming Republican Gov. Jeb Bush jointly chose Quince from the JNC's list of nominees. Lawmakers could easily require such a schedule in statute. Or the 2017 Constitution Revision Commission could offer other fairer solutions.
This amendment has little to do with averting crisis and everything to do with the Legislature's effort to erode the Supreme Court's independence. In 2001, Republican legislative leaders undercut the bipartisan reforms passed in the 1970s under then-Gov. Reubin Askew that were considered a national model for fairly picking judges. Now governors choose all nine members of the nominating commissions that vet judicial candidates, and Scott has abused that authority. He has repeatedly rejected without explanation the Florida Bar's legally required list of nominees to serve on the commission, creating a de facto partisan litmus test for a nonpartisan court.
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Florida needs an independent judiciary that functions as a check and balance on the partisan executive and legislative branches — not a rubber stamp. Florida doesn't need this amendment. On Amendment 3 on the Nov. 4 ballot, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting no.