Florida Court System Dodges A Political Bullet

The Florida civil justice system just dodged a bullet. A few weeks ago, the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives introduced a bill to propose a constitutional amendment. Its goal was to split the Supreme Court into separate civil and criminal divisions with different justices sitting on each bench. The speaker, Republican Dean Cannon of Orlando, claimed the bill would save money and eliminate the backlog of cases not yet heard by the current justices who hear both civil and criminal cases. However, the figures don't support those arguments.

The Supreme Court's case load has fallen to half of what it was in 2001, and the Office of State Courts Administrator concluded that Cannon's changes would cost the state more, far more, because 41 full-time employees would have to be added to the court system. Critics said the real reason for Cannon's bill was to pay back the present court for its decision that blocked last year's political redistricting amendment from the ballot. That amendment was deemed an attempt by the legislature to redistrict to put or keep one political party's candidates in office rather than to encourage fair elections.

Cannon's bill, its critics say, would have permitted the governor to move 3 of the present justices to the new criminal section of the Supreme Court and appoint judges favorable to his ideas to the civil side of the Supreme Court. Fortunately for the state, the Florida Senate just rejected this part of Cannon's bill in favor of putting a modified version before voters in next fall's general election.

It is still worrisome, because even the Senate's version of the bill approves a package of changes that will give the legislature immense influence on the court system. For example, it will allow the legislature to repeal rules of court. If that amendment is approved by the voters, it will destroy the constitution's separation of powers that is widely considered to provide checks and balances between the branches of government. Time will tell if the partisan thinking behind this amendment will carry the day or fail.

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