Tallahassee, FL - In response to criticism from court officials and other “stakeholders”, House Speaker Dean Cannon on Wednesday scaled back ambitious court reform proposals by jettisoning a bill making it harder for elected judges to stay in office, while revamping how courts are funded and expanding the Florida Supreme Court’s ability to decide which cases to hear.
In what critics said was a thinly veiled attack on the judicial branch, Cannon, R-Winter Park, unveiled last month an aggressive slate of proposals that would have split the Florida Supreme Court, made it more difficult for a judge to get re-elected and easier for the Legislature to impeach sitting judges.
But on Wednesday, the House speaker apparently backed off, based on amendments expected to be offered in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Some of the groups targeted by the reforms, including the Florida Supreme Court, said they were not privy to the changes, contradicting Cannon’s assertion that the revised proposals unveiled Wednesday were a product of “input from various stakeholders.”
“The court was not consulted about the proposals and it did not request any kind of restructuring” said Craig Waters, spokesman for the Florida Supreme Court. A Florida Bar spokeswoman was unaware of the revised proposal when contacted Wednesday and later said they were analyzing the bills and not prepared to comment in detail but applauded the effort to reform how the court system receives funding from the Legislature.
Cannon has said he wants to correct structural problems to improve “judicial efficiency” and “add to the capability of our judicial branch to process cases fairly and expedite the fair administration of justice.” He has said the Supreme Court is dominated too much by criminal cases. His original proposal would have split the court into two separate panels, one dealing with civil cases and one handling criminal cases.
Waters, the Supreme Court spokesman, disagreed with the assumption that a divided Supreme Court was needed to ease the workload. “All measures of the court’s caseload show that it is declining,” Waters said. “All measures of the Supreme Court’s efficiency show that is increasing.”
Cannon’s original proposal would create two Supreme Courts of five justices each, one for criminal appeals and another for civil appeals. His proposals also raised the bar for how many votes a judge needs to be re-elected from 50 percent to 60 percent, potentially removing some judges from office. Cannon also wanted to open up the investigative files of judges accused of misconduct to enable the Legislature to impeach them and change how judges are picked by giving more power to select members of the Judicial Nominating Commission.
All of those proposals would have required approval of voters because they are constitutional amendments.
Under the new proposed amendment (HJR 7111), the Supreme Court would stay as one, but would add three justices and have a civil and criminal division of five justices each. The Governor would appoint the chief justice for each division.
The resolution would also change the constitution so that the House of Representatives would have access to the Judicial Qualifications Commission’s files on judges under investigation for misconduct, but those files would not be made public. The Legislature would also retain final say over rules made in the judicial system, including, for example, what constitutes a speedy trial.
The Judicial Nominating Commission bill (HB 7101) remains intact but would no longer be in the state constitution. The proposal allows the Governor to appoint all members of the judicial nominating commissions used to select nominees for Florida’s appellate courts, and would effectively eliminate current members of each JNC.
By expanding the size of the Supreme Court, and giving the governor more power over the nominations process, the Republican-led Legislature is ensuring the court has a more conservative bent. But Cannon has insisted before that is not his intention. He is more concerned with the fact that civil appeals take up more of the workload.
Some critics say they believe Cannon’s agenda is about sending a message to the courts after the removal of three legislatively proposed constitutional amendments last year before voters could weigh in on them.
“There appears to be, in this branch, some type of animosity towards the judicial system,” said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, saying it shows “a lack of respect.” But Thurston cast doubt Cannon’s reforms would gain much momentum considering the Senate’s cooler reception of these reforms.
Cannon is abandoning an attempt to make it more difficult to re-elect a judge by requiring a 60 percent approval to stay in office and has instead endorsed the idea of allowing Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices.
Two new proposals also surfaced on Wednesday that have a major impact on the courts and will be added to HJR 7111 at Thursday’s committee hearing. One would greatly expand what type of cases the Supreme Court could weigh in on.
Under current law, the court can only consider cases when the conflict is “expressly and directly” shown between other appellate districts. Cannon would remove that requirement, opening the gates to many more appeals to the court and potentially an even weightier caseload.
“Broadening the court’s jurisdiction in this manner means that thousands of new cases inevitably will be filed here, causing the caseload to balloon far beyond today’s numbers,” Waters said. “This is because the current limitation denies the Supreme Court jurisdiction over the vast majority of cases decided by the district courts of appeal.”
Matthew Conigliaro, an appellate attorney from Carlton Fields in St. Petersburg said the proposal would fundamentally alter the appellate system by centralizing power within the Supreme Court.
“The impact would be tremendous,” Conigliaro said. “The current system spreads Florida’s judicial authority across the appellate courts and was designed to avoid giving too much power to a single court.”
Cannon also answered a longtime criticism that courts are not well-funded. He has proposed guaranteeing for the courts 2.25 percent of general revenue for the court system every year. Florida’s courts have struggled in recent years to meet their budgets after revenue estimates have fallen far short.
The Florida Bar said the move is a step in the right direction.
“The speaker's additional suggestion to provide a constitutionally-protected minimum annual appropriation for the courts is very encouraging,” said Florida Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker.
Waters, the Supreme Court spokesman, said it is not clear what entities are included in the proposed 2.25 percent guarantee. He isn’t certain whether it includes the clerks of court or the public defenders and state attorneys.
Cannon is also keeping a plan (HB 7199) to move the Florida Supreme Court to the much-maligned new First District Court of Appeal building in southeast Tallahassee. “The geography and quality of the first DCA courthouse makes that an appropriate place. They have two courtrooms, they have ample room for the ten justices and so it just seems to be a good fit,” Cannon said. Where the First District Court of Appeals goes will be figured out later, he said.