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Wednesday, Jun 28, 2017
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The Florida Legislature is going after the courts — again

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.

They didn’t like that. 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 District 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, HJR 7111 appeared out of nowhere. The joint resolution turned the seven-member court into two five-member courts — one for criminal cases and one for civil cases. Further, five of the seven justices at the time would be 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 state Supreme Court had no backlog problem while the lower courts did but were being refused additional judges.

It’s hard to ignore a priority of the House speaker, so the Senate president took it up even though there was a lack of support in the Senate. Despite pressure on senators to approve the speaker’s retaliatory and opportunistic court measure, a coalition of Republican and Democratic senators stripped the provision splitting and packing the Supreme Court from the joint resolution.

Since it required a constitutional change, if it had passed the Senate intact, it would have appeared on the ballot for the voters to decide and would have required 60 percent of the vote. Instead, the stripped-down version appeared on the ballot in 2012. It gave the Legislature more oversight in judicial rule-making and in the judicial nominating process — likely violating the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.

Apparently, voters agreed that this was improper overreach and soundly defeated it. Since the court-splitting maneuver failed, there was a Plan B. The Republican Party of Florida openly worked against the retention of the three Florida Supreme Court justices they viewed to be liberal.

Again, the efforts failed. The justices were all retained. Not even close.

Then, 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.

So now, here we are again trying to show the judges who’s boss. Bills HJR 197 and SJR 322 are a priority of the incoming speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran. The bill would amend the state constitution by limiting appellate court judges and Supreme Court justices to two six-year terms. 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 will 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 garner 60 percent of the popular vote during 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.

Voters have consistently rejected legislative attempts to interfere with the judicial branch by respecting the tenets of separation of powers and checks and balances. 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 PBDockery@gmail.com.

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