Senate waters down JNC bill, House refuses to hear it

Mar 7, 2012

A measure that would let the state’s governor remove a majority of the members of Florida’s judicial nominating commission has passed in the Senate—that’s the commission that helps pick  judges  like the state’s supreme court justices. But Regan McCarthy reports some lawmakers are raising concerns that the proposal could give the governor too much power – letting him ensure the state’s bench is made up of people who “think like him.”

Senator David Simmons, a Republican from Altamonte Springs, says the measure will stop members of the Judicial Nominating Commission, or JNC, from “gaming the system” – something he says has gone on in the past.

“What they did, and there are clear examples of this, members of the JNC, who knew they couldn’t be terminated, except for cause, would go ahead and send up to the governor two unqualified candidates and then one that they wanted to be chosen. The end result is that the governor had no choice at all. He had to choose, she had to choose, a person who was in fact gaming the system and that’s not fair and that’s not right so I understand the rational why the governor wants to do what he’s asking to be done.”

The measure stems from a proposal Governor Rick Scott floated that would essentially let him wipe out all members of the 9-member nominating panel, giving him the ability to basically fire any commission member at any time. But, the Senate’s version of the bill tones things down. Under the Senate’s plan the governor would only be allowed to get rid of the commission members he appoints. That would mean five members of the panel, which is a majority, would serve at the pleasure of the governor, while the remaining four members who are selected by the Florida Bar would serve until the end of their term. Simmons says the Senate bill makes a good compromise.

“What we’re doing here is we’re assuring that there is some, what you’d call ‘middle of the road’ position. How do you do that? Those members who are appointed as a virtue of being nominated by the Florida Bar, which there are four on each one of the judicial nominating commissions, cannot be terminated. They do not serve at the pleasure of the governor. So four out of the nine can stay there until the end of their terms unless they’ve done something that would cause them to be terminated for cause.”

But lawmakers like Senator Oscar Braynon, a Democrat from Miami Gardens, say they’re worried the change could make commissioners hesitant to make the decisions they think are right. Braynon says if JNC members selected by the governor make a controversial nomination they would have no protection under this measure and could be re-appointed immediately.

“We don’t have a recall here in the state of Florida for us or for the governor and that allows us to be legislators and answer to the voters at the end of our term. Now we’re saying for the members of the JNC, they have to answer after each appointment to the governor. I just don’t think that’s right. I think that eats away at the fairness of the entire process.”

And Senator Arthenia Joyner, a Democrat from Tampa says she worries the measure would stifle diversity.

“This bill gives too much power to a governor who said he wanted people who thought like him to sit on the judiciary of the state of Florida, and that is exactly what we should not allow. Because no one should have the power to make sure that five of the people that they appoint would ultimately do what they would do in the absence of those five, and that is appoint people who think like them.”

Joyner says she would feel the same way about the proposal no matter what party the governor belonged to.  The measure passed out of the Senate with a vote of 24 to 14.