Deal lets Bush pick 9 judges
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- The House and Senate, at odds over how to fill new judgeships, brokered a deal that lets Gov. Jeb Bush appoint half of 18 proposed new trial judges.
The other nine would be chosen by voters, including one each in the Hillsborough and Pasco-Pinellas circuits and two in the circuit covering Hernando and Citrus counties.
Senators favored filling all new judgeships through elections, and House leaders wanted Bush to do the choosing. Their disagreement threatened to torpedo the bill and leave Florida's backlogged trial courts without help in a year when the Supreme Court certified the need for 34 more circuit judges.
"We've got a choice: Compromise or get no judges," said Senate Judiciary chairman Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach. "That's not good for the people of Florida, and it's not good for the court system."
The compromise passed the Senate Appropriations Committee 15-2 Wednesday and must survive budget negotiations. The two dissenters, a Republican and a Democrat, complained that back-room politics trumped the public's will.
Floridians voted overwhelmingly in 2000 to continue electing circuit and county judges rather than switch to a pure system of merit selection, which is how vacancies are filled whenever a judge retires, dies or is promoted to a higher court in midterm.
But no law dictates how new judgeships are filled. The Legislature has the discretion to fill them by election or appointment.
Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, and Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, opposed the compromise. Miller called it a "power grab" by a Bush-friendly House.
Villalobos said that "as a matter of principle" lawmakers should follow the will of voters, who rejected by nearly a 2-1 ratio a proposed constitutional amendment requiring all judges be appointed.
"Judges ought to be elected. That's what the people of Florida said," Villalobos said.
Last year, the Republican Legislature gave Bush more say over the committees that recommend candidates for the bench.
"It's stupid for us not to get good judges. Whether they're elected or appointed, they're all good people," said Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac.
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