Is the Florida Supreme Court about to become a two-headed monster?  Not yet, but that possibility became more realistic this morning.  

John Kennedy of the Post on Politics blog of the Palm Beach Post reports that the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House approved Speaker Dean Cannon’s bill to send to the voters a proposed Constitutional amendment that would implement some major changes for the Florida Supreme Court.  The most controversial aspect of those changes is a proposal to have separate sets of Justices decided criminal and civil cases. 

As Dara Kam of the Post reported yesterday, the current plan calls for slightly more modest changes.  Rather than creating a separate highest court for criminal appeals (a la Texas), the current plan would expand the Supreme Court to ten justices, but they would be divided into a separate criminal and civil divisions, with 5 justices assigned to each. 

The Florida Bar has come out strongly in opposition the idea of dividing responsibility for hearing criminal and civil cases.  Per Kennedy’s post, it is, at best, lukewarm to Speaker Cannon’s latest idea:

We request to continue the dialogue,” said Mayanne Downs, president of the Florida Bar.

Lloyd Dunkelberger of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune‘s blog Capitol Comments has more on the revised version of the proposed amendment.  Here are some of the more interesting aspects of the revised plan and my thoughts on them:

  • It backs off the idea of eliminating judicial nominating committees.  That’s a good move, in my view, as JNCs play a big role in making sure the candidates are well qualified and not chosen solely for their partisan views or campaign contributions.
  • The revised plan, like the earlier version, would require state Senate confirmation for Supreme Court Justice nominees.  I’m not sure how I feel about this one.  In theory at least, it can be beneficial to allow a wider group of representatives to vet nominees, rather than giving the governor unfettered, unilateral power.  On the other hand, the judicial confirmation process in U.S. Senate has become a partisan circus that has no obvious value, other than giving partisans a forum for practicing their one-liners.  Who’s to say the process wouldn’t play out the same way in the Florida Senate? 
  • The Legislature would be given access to the records of the Judicial Qualifications Commission so it could impeach judges with meritorious complaints against them.  This one is dangerous.  The current judicial oversight system works well — better than in any other state I’m aware of — in disciplining those few judges that are genuine bad apples.  Giving the Legislature additional power to discipline seems to be aimed only at giving it a tool to get rid of judges whose decisions they don’t like — and to intimidate the ones that remain to do its bidding.
  • The plan would provide additional funding to the court system.  Funding was probably added to the revised proposal as a sweetener for the Florida Bar and other opponents, and it would certainly be welcomed by the court system.  As John Kennedy and Susan Spencer-Wendel of the Post reported earlier this week, the money is needed to avert a potential crisis for Palm Beach County courts, among others.

Something tells me, however, that the Bar and the courts — both of which will continue to have some influence on the Legislative process, and will certainly mount vocal campaigns if the proposal is ever put to the voters — will be unwilling to swallow so much pain for a funding stopgap.  Nor does it appear, according to Kennedy’s post, that the state Senate is quite ready to go along.