Florida Supreme Court Threatened by Political Gamesmanship
The rule of law in American society is upheld by the independence of its government’s three branches. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government provide a system of checks and balances which ensure that overreach by any one branch will not pull the entire system down. That is the basis of the American Constitution, and its simple genius has stood the test of time. But now Florida’s Speaker of the House, Dean Cannon (R-Winter Park), has decided he has a better idea.
Speaker Cannon has a plan to split the State Supreme Court into two, and expand the number of justices. One court would be responsible for hearing criminal cases, and the other would handle only civil law matters. Each of these dual Supreme Courts would have 5 justices. Under Cannon’s bill, which passed committee yesterday, the Democratic justices on our Supreme Court now would coincidentally be moved onto the criminal law Supreme Court. This would leave room for three new Supreme Court justice appointments by Republican Governor Rick Scott, to fill out the roster of the Court’s civil side. House Speaker Cannon has denied politics played any part in the proposed bill, instead citing an overwhelming backlog of cases (a backlog Cannon claims is created by appeals of death penalty cases).
The facts quickly put the lie to this claim. Delays in death penalty cases are often caused by questions of federal law, or inaction by the executive branch. Florida’s Supreme Court decides death penalty cases more quickly than most other state Supreme Courts. And the caseload of Florida’s Supreme Court has actually been declining over the past ten years. Speaker Cannon’s reasons for this attack on the independence of our judicial branch have so easily been proven hollow, it has left critics of the bill to speculate what the real motivations may be. Newspaper editorials from around the state have denounced the proposed bill as a complex form of gerrymandering, and called Cannon’s motivations for proposing the bill suspect. Even the USA Today came out against this proposed bill.
Last year the Florida Supreme Court struck down three proposed Constitutional amendments from the legislature, for containing deceptive language. One of those amendments was intended to undermine the campaign for fairer redistricting laws in Florida. The amendment the Legislature proposed was designed to protect the ability to create “safe districts”, where legislators of one party redraw district lines to protect themselves and their party from the risk of ever being voted out of office. After the legislature’s proposed amendments were struck down by the Supreme Court, the people of Florida voted 63% in support of Fair District amendments which made the rules of redistricting more fair and transparent. Mr. Cannon and others have actually filed suit to overturn these amendments, so overwhelmingly supported by the people they claim to represent.
The proposed changes to the Florida Supreme Court would leave a five justice “civil division” staffed by Republicans, three of whom would have been hand-picked by Governor Rick Scott. They would be in a position to overturn the will of the people on the Fair District Amendments, and to rubber-stamp whatever big-business sponsored partisan legislation comes across their desk. However, this proposed bill is about much more than Democrats vs. Republicans, or any petty political squabbles. It threatens the very structure of our government, which thrives only through the checks and balances provided by the independence of the 3 branches. House Speaker Dean Cannon, in retaliation for the perceived slight of having his pet amendments struck down, now proposes to turn the judicial branch into an extension of the legislative branch’s powers. To see for yourself what the result of these proposed changes would be on the function of Florida’s government, try sitting on a two-legged stool. Contact your government representatives to let them know you are opposed to this attack on the independence of the judicial branch. If you do not want to see Florida’s Supreme Court weakened by being split in two, contact:
House Judiciary Chair Bill Snyder at 850.488.8832 or [email protected]
Senate Judiciary Chair Anitere Flores at 850.487.5130 or [email protected]
House Speaker Dean Cannon at 850.488.2742 or [email protected]