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Florida Panel Passes Plan To Split State’s Top Court

Florida Panel Passes Plan To Split State’s Top Court
By Carolina Bolado

Law360, New York (April 26, 2011) — The Florida Senate budget committee signed off on a controversial amendment Monday that would add justices to the state Supreme Court and split it into civil and criminal divisions, in what opponents claim is a politically-motivated attempt to pack the courts.

The committee tacked the measure on to a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it easier for the state legislature to repeal court rules and voted 15-5 to send it to the senate floor.

The move was an attempt to appease the amendment’s sponsor, state House Speaker Dean Cannon, and move along budget negotiations between the legislative houses, which had been stalled for two weeks. On Tuesday, the state senate and house of representatives announced that they had agreed on allocations for the 2011-2012 state budget.

The amendment, which passed the house on April 15, has been a top priority for Cannon, who claims the judicial reforms would help the courts be more responsive and better equipped to meet the needs of today’s Florida, and deal with the backlog of death-penalty cases.

The proposed amendment would add three governor-appointed justices to the seven-member court and split it into two five-judge divisions that would focus on criminal and civil cases separately. It would also expand the court’s jurisdiction by allowing it to take cases regardless of whether lower courts are divided on the subject.

If it passes the senate, the measure will be put on the ballot and will need the approval of at least 60 percent of voters in order to be enacted.

Cannon says the changes would streamline the court’s operations and help ease the backlog of death penalty review cases. But detractors say the problem isn’t at the level of the supreme court, which has not asked for help managing its caseload.

“There are many reasons why it takes a long time to go from conviction to execution, but a lot of that has to do with the federal court system,” White & Case LLP attorney and former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero said.

Cantero said it would take $17 million in startup costs to implement the changes and $2 million per year after that to maintain the extra justices and their staff. The money could be better used in the trial courts, which have been dealing with huge backlogs, particularly from the spike in foreclosure cases, and have requested funding for new judges, he said.

Cannon says the amendment addresses this as well with its provision allocating 2.25 percent of all funding sources — general revenue plus the court trust fund — for the court system. According to Katie Betta, a spokesperson for Cannon, the funding is currently at about 1.9 percent, and the amendment would have added $73 million to the court’s coffers had the rule been in place this year.

That money, she said, could be used to address any needs that arise in the system, including funding more trial court judges.

The amendment would also alter the rulemaking process in the state courts.

Currently, the Florida Supreme Court makes the rules of practice and procedure that apply to all courts in the state system. Legislators can repeal a court rule with a two-thirds vote, although the state Supreme Court can simply reinstate the rule.

Under the proposed amendment, the threshold for repealing a rule drops to a simple majority and the state Supreme Court is barred from readopting the rule within three years.

Opponents say the proposal smacks of an attempt to exert influence on the judiciary.

“The judiciary has to be respected as a co-equal fully funded branch of government,” American Bar Association President Stephen Zack said. “That’s what our constitution intended, and that’s what our constitutional democracy is based on.”

The measure does not have the support of a majority of senators, according to Lisa Hall of Floridians for Fair and Impartial Courts. But they might still pass it and punt the issue to voters anyway, she said.

Given the recent public outcry regarding the amendment, she said it was unlikely to gain much support among voters.

“I don’t think there’s a prayer that it would pass the ballot box,” Hall said.

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