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House speaker says Supreme Court needs overhaul

Rep. Feeney says the court, which angered conservatives with its election rulings, perhaps needs term limits.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- House Speaker Tom Feeney says state legislators are likely to take a close look at changing the way the Florida Supreme Court operates -- and might consider imposing term limits for the justices.

A return to an elected court and the possible removal of the Florida Bar from the process of licensing and disciplining the state's 68,000 lawyers are also on the table this year.

In a presession interview with the St. Petersburg Times Monday, Feeney said he supports the continued independence of the state's judiciary, but he complained that the Florida Supreme Court ignored the state and federal constitutions when it ordered recounts of votes during last year's elections battle.

"I believe the court is made up of honest men and women, but their philosophy of interpreting the law is to create new law," said Feeney, who is a lawyer himself.

Feeney said he's troubled by a system that leaves the state's citizens, and its Legislature, no way to remedy a situation when they believe the court has ignored the constitution and the law.

"If legislators misbehave and act stupidly, there are remedies: the court can strike them down and the people can vote them out of office every two years," Feeney said. "If I saw a proposal that would tend to produce a court more respectful of the law and the Constitution, I'd take a hard look at it."

Feeney says he's getting letters from all over the nation from state legislators who are not mad at their own state court, but are really angry at the Florida Supreme Court.

Feeney said the House is likely to look at the possibility of establishing term limits for justices and returning to a system where appellate court judges must stand for election. Under current law, appellate judges and the Florida Supreme Court are selected under a merit retention system that sees them face the voters every six years without an opponent.

Under the merit retention system, no appellate judge or state Supreme Court justice has ever been voted out of office. If it did happen, a new judge would be appointed by the governor.

Before Florida shifted to the merit retention system in the 1970s, judges were elected like other state officials. The new system was designed to take the politics out of courtrooms and has been highly praised by legal scholars.

Chief Justice Charles Wells, answering through court spokesman Craig Waters, refused to comment when told of Feeney's comments.

In addition to considering changes in the very structure of the court, Feeney said he would also support a move to take the Florida Bar out of the process of licensing and disciplining lawyers, an issue that has often been considered by legislators in the past.

"I think there is something elitist and ostentatious about lawyers saying they are such special people that they should regulate themselves," he said.

Perhaps lawyers, like doctors and architects, should be regulated by a state agency, the speaker suggested. "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," he added.

Feeney is the latest in a string of conservatives to suggest the Florida high court needs to be recalled or changed in the wake of its elections rulings, which were later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. At least three groups have announced campaigns to remove some or all of the seven justices.

Feeney's comments are likely to stir up a hornet's nest in legal circles that have long been protective of the Bar and the merit retention system.

Herman Russomanno, president of the Bar, said his organization strongly supports the state's independent judiciary.

"The independence of judges and the profession is so important to our system of democracy and its checks and balances," Russomanno said. "If changes are needed they should come from the Bar working closely with our governor."

Rep. Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach, a longtime supporter of taking the regulation of lawyers away from the Bar, said he is preparing another bill for this year's session. Melvin said he also wants to file a bill that would prohibit the judiciary from hiring legislative lobbyists.

Legislators are also planning to consider bills that would cap attorney fees in lawsuits filed against nursing homes, over the strenuous objections of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.

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