Voters Overrule Assault on Florida Courts

Jan 31, 2013 by

The last few years have been tough on Florida’s court system. While the judicial branch is to be separate but equal to the other two branches of government, its budget is at the whim of the Legislature and its judicial vacancies are filled by the governor.

This is above and beyond the system of checks and balances that the framers of our Constitution intended to ensure a fair system of justice. It is imperative that no branch of government garners the ability to exert undue influence over another, thus tipping the scales of power.

In the 2010 legislative session, the courts requested nearly $165 million to provide adequate funding for the state’s court system. They received slightly more than $8 million of their request. At the time they had not been authorized any new judges for four years, so their request included 80 new trial court judges.

When Rick Scott was elected governor, one of the first issues he faced was an emergency request by the courts for funding; it was granted. Hoping the worst was behind them, the courts seemed unaware of the onslaught to come.

First the powerful Speaker of the House proposed splitting the Florida Supreme Court. The plan included adding three new justices to the existing seven and splitting those 10 into a civil and criminal division. Five of the existing judges would go to the criminal court and the governor would appoint three new justices to join the remaining two veteran justices on the civil court.

Allegations of “court packing” immediately sounded, with the fear that the unpopular, extremely conservative governor would mold the court in his image.

The rationale for the change was to address the backlog of cases in the Supreme Court. However, the numbers painted a different story. The caseloads had actually decreased over the prior 10 years and at the end of 2010, there were only 953 cases pending in the Supreme Court with very little backlog.

The trial courts, on the other hand, had more than 3 million cases filed with a backlog of over 650,000. Their pleas for new judges and more funding fell on relatively deaf ears.

The court-changing Joint Resolution (HJR 7111) easily passed the House. It was quite different in the Senate, where several Republican senators prevented that highly controversial plan from going forward. In the 2011 legislative session HJR 7111 barely passed after amendments removed the most egregious court-splitting provision.

The next stop: the voters. HJR 7111 would become Amendment 5 on the 2012 ballot.

What was left in HJR 7111? Three major provisions granted the Legislature more power, authority and oversight over the judicial branch.

First, a requirement that a Supreme Court justice appointed by the governor must be confirmed by the Senate to take office.

Second, a provision authorizing the Legislature to repeal court rules through the passing of a general law.

Third, allowing the House to review files of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which collects information for use in considering possible impeachment.

This legislative power grab would have had a chilling effect on the independence of our state courts. It seriously challenged the long-standing concept of separation of powers and created a politically charged environment.

Amendment 5 had three separate ballot summaries and required 60 percent of the vote to revise the state Constitution. An informed electorate, acting as judge and jury, objected to political interference in the judicial branch by soundly defeating the measure with over 63 percent of the vote.

In the past two years there have been numerous court challenges and appeals over legislative and executive branch action. Millions of state tax dollars have been used to defend legislation and executive authority. Millions more were spent to appeal decisions that didn’t go their way.

These challenges may have been the catalyst for the unprecedented political involvement of the Republican Party of Florida on merit retention of Supreme Court justices. Despite claims to the contrary, this action did not originate from the grassroots. The party announced the decision to recommend a “no vote” on retention of the three Supreme Court justices — Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince — who were scheduled to appear on the 2012 ballot.

Some suspected this was a ploy to drain money from tight legislative races while others believed this was a concerted effort to allow the governor to reshape a court that had ruled against him on numerous occasions.

Regardless of the motives, many jumped to the aid of the embattled justices and turned a historically low-key retention vote into an emotionally charged defense of the judicial system.

In the end, the voters handed down the final verdict. Their ruling: Retain all three justices with over 67 percent of the vote.

Perhaps the assault on the court system will end after Florida voters sent a very strong message: Don’t mess with our courts.

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