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Groups Blast Bill Giving Governor More Power Over Judge Selection

Should the Florida governor get to remove and replace people from the committees that nominate judges, whenever he wants? A bill that’s passed a House committee would allow just that, and it’s drawing fire from groups including the nonpartisan League of Women Voters and the Florida Bar.

Many Floridians might never stand before a judge inside a courtroom. But judges’ decisions affect everyone, whether they’re ruling about the shape of our congressional districts, or whether companies are allowed to tax us, or if our local laws violate the state constitution. When judges make those decisions, the constitution says, they can only consider the facts of the case and the law. But Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, says, one bill would make judges beholden to the whims of politics.

“For the third straight year, a bill has been introduced which seeks to further expand political control and influence over what is supposed to be a nonpartisan merit system,” she said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

When there’s an opening for an appeals court judge or when a trial judge leaves mid-term, judicial nominating commissions select up to six judges for the governor to choose from. The members of the nominating committees are also appointed by the governor or a previous governor. And he can remove them if they break rules. But House Bill 7033 would take the governor’s power a step further. It would allow him to remove judicial nominators any time for any reason.

Lawyer Todd Copeland, a member of the judicial nominating commission for the Fifth Circuit, says, that could disrupt the process.

Testifying before the House Civil Justice Subcommittee last month, Copeland said, “For me it’s not a political thing. History has shown that both parties will have an opportunity to have the governor’s mansion and the executive branch at some point in time,” he said. “But I don’t think either party should have the chance to disturb the process, which is the election of fair and independent judges.”

All public speakers who testified were also against the bill. They included representatives from the Florida Bar and the American Board of Trial Advocates. They all said it was an encroachment by one branch of government into another that’s supposed to be equally powerful.

But bill sponsor Charlie Stone (R-Ocala) said, letting the nominating committees serve at the whim of the governor brings accountability to the process. He’s said, that’s because the governor is an elected official.

One of Stone’s Republican colleagues, Kathleen Passidomo, said, she doesn’t think politics will affect judicial selection, even if the governor is allowed to kick people off nominating committees at any time.

“No matter who the governor is, whether the governor is a Democrat or Republican, we have such dedicated people in our state who are on these committees, and I am confident that they will select names that will go to the governor that are the brightest minds of our state,” she said.

But Jim Waldman (D-Coconut Creek) disagrees.

“Anybody who doesn’t think that this is a political issue, then you shouldn’t be surprised, or I guess you’ll be surprised, that the vote pretty much is going to be party-line right here at this committee,” he said. “And that just doesn’t make sense. I mean, that makes no sense. We’re a bunch of lawyers here.”

Waldman’s prediction came true, with a party-line, 8-to-4 vote passing the bill out of committee. It is now in the House Judiciary Committee. But no Senate companion has been filed.