REFORM OF THE COURT SYSTEM
The House went immediately to HJR 7111, a proposed constitutional amendment to divide the Supreme Court into two divisions, one for criminal cases and one for civil cases. Each would have five justices and separate chief justices.
Democrats proposed an amendment to make clear that there would be no election to put the proposed amendment before voters before November 2012. Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, said there was concern on the back row that lawmakers intended to put the measure before voters earlier than that, in time to “stack the court” before it will consider redistricting issues in the spring of 2012.
“This is about stacking the court for redistricting ,” said Steinberg.
The amendment failed 39-79.
Democrats also tried an amendment that would undo most of the bill, except a dedicated funding source for the courts. That amendment also failed.
“This is an immature, ill-advised and arrogant attempt by leadership to pack the Supreme Court,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.
Rep. Charles Van Zant said that “our Supreme Court has failed our society, ruling against our defenseless citizens” and needed to be expanded so it could be more representative of the populace.
Several Republicans said the court goes too slow with criminal cases, denying justice, and the same with civil cases, denying needed relief to businesses.
“Being on death row for 30 years is not efficient administration of justice,” said Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa.
Democrats retorted that the courts in Florida are more efficient than many other states, and that many of the slowdowns – particularly with death row inmates – are actually in the federal courts.
Rep. Ron Saunders, the Democratic leader in the House, said the question of the motivation for the bill, and whether it was an effort to pack the court with more conservatives, was simple – he asked members to ask themselves whether they thought the GOP-led House would be doing this if the governor were Democrat Alex Sink.
Things got a little heated because Rep. Waldman compared a situation where one party controls the entire apparatus of government to the situation in Cuba. An angry Rep. Carlos Lopez Cantera said he was offended by the comparison. Waldman later said that nobody should question his motives – and noted that his children are Cuban-American and his ex-wife’s family was exiled from Cuba, and in some cases imprisoned, and reiterated his fear of one party rule.
Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, argued that the claim that Republicans want to pack the court before redistricting was a red herring. “It has zero to do with redistricting …..This bill requires the question to be presented to voters at the general election of 2012. Period. It could have no impact on redistricting….. The only way it could …is if a separate bill is filed. To my knowledge, no such bill is filed.”
Eisnaugle also said it was disrespectful for Democrats to assume that justices rule “politically” rather than based on the law.
Eisnaugle also said the measure is important because of a provision that seeks to reduce the ability of the court to overreach through rule-making. Eisnaugle has complained, for example, about the court rule determining what constitutes a speedy trial. The Legislature may not agree with the length of time, but has no ability to check that. “There is a branch of government that has no check,” Eisnaugle said. “This bill will provide that meaningful check.”
The bill passed 79-38 along party lines.