Court revamp bill clears house-- now goes to the senate
By Tom Flanigan
Tallahassee, FL – A proposal to both expand and split the Florida Supreme Court was headed for a final vote in the Florida House today Friday. Tom Flanigan reports the measure eventually passed after hours of sometimes passionate debate.
The proposed constitutional amendment would increase the number of state supreme justices from the current seven to ten. Five of those justices would hear nothing but criminal cases. The other five, including three new justices essentially appointed by the governor, would focus on civil cases. Voters would have the final say as the changes would require a change to the state constitution. House members vigorously debated the pros and cons of the plan on Thursday before a party-line "yes" vote moved the measure to its final reading and vote on Friday. Because so much had already been said about the bill, Speaker Dean Cannon limited Friday's debate to one-hour-per side. And Democrat James Waldman of Coconut Creek led off the charge in opposition.
"This quite simply is an immature, ill-advised and arrogant attempt by the leadership to pack the Supreme Court. It is neither bold, nor innovative nor well-conceived. In fact, it's an assault on our constitution."
Then Waldman yielded the rest of his time to fellow Democrat Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg. Things started getting personal and Finally, Speaker Cannon had heard enough.
"Now last year at exactly this time, you tried to pull a fast one on us uh, on Florida voters by placing a --"
Cannon: "Representative Kriseman!"
Kriseman: "Yes, sir?"
Cannon: "I don't mind all the debate you want to have on the policy. And Representative Waldman, I gave you broad latitude. But I will encourage each of you. Use caution and discretion and respect that is becoming of this chamber in your debate. Please focus on the policy and you may proceed."
That toned down the discussion considerably, but passionate opposition continued from Democrats, like Scott Randolph of Orlando.
"What's so abhorrent about this joint resolution is that its purpose is clearly to punish the court. To remove certain justices from cases arising out of our actions and to ensure that there will be more favorable justices when this year's and next year's crop of legislation is challenged."
Fellow Democrat Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg had a slightly different objection
"It's not for me about which political party is in power now and packing anything or not packing anything. It's about proper respect for a co-equal branch of government. It's about us supporting the judiciary."
There was even a comment that the Republican-dominated legislature was trying to copy the dictatorial government of Communist Cuba. That brought this angry response from Republican Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami.
"Those comments were na ve at best and, in my personal opinion, extremely offensive."
But there was also some respectful moments, too. Bill sponsor, Republican Eric Eisnaugle of Orlando, gave props to one of his bill's most frequent critics, Miami Beach Democrat Richard Steinberg.
"But you have engaged in this discussion from the beginning, starting months ago, in an effective way and an intelligent way and, sir, it has been an honor to work with you on this bill."
That said, Eisnaugle closed on the bill and the House voted yes by a two-to-one margin. Earlier in the day, the Senate Rules Committee had been due to consider an amendment bringing that chamber's version of the constitutional amendment into line with the House version. But that amendment was withdrawn without comment. The Senate could still take up the House bill, however. If that happens and members pass the measure, it would still need sixty percent of the electorate before it could become part of the Florida constitution.