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Bills would give governor tighter grip on judiciary

One measure would add two justices and another strips some of the high court's procedural rulemaking power.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- After months of complaining about the liberalism of state courts, lawmakers will debate sweeping changes that could give Gov. Jeb Bush more control over the judicial branch -- even allowing him to add two justices to the seven-member Supreme Court.

"The appellate courts have been undermining the will of the majority . . . by substituting their own personal politics and whims for the work of elected officials," state Rep. Tom Feeney, a ranking Republican from Oviedo, said Monday.

Last month, the state Supreme Court crossed state lawmakers by temporarily blocking a law to limit the number of appeals death row inmates can file. In recent years, the court has found Republican-led initiatives to limit abortion rights unconstitutional.

The proposal to add Supreme Court justices would allow the conservative Bush, whose administration hatched a plan last year to recruit more "ideologically compatible" judges, to reshape the state's high court just as other key Republican initiatives are facing constitutional challenges.

Those initiatives include the nation's first statewide school voucher experiment, limiting the legal liability of businesses and a requirement that minors notify parents before obtaining abortions.

Bush does not have to sign off on the proposed constitutional amendment to change the makeup of the Supreme Court: The Legislature needs a three-fifths vote in each chamber to put the proposal directly on the ballot. Republicans have the votes necessary if they stick together, but voters would have the ultimate say.

But despite six of the seven current justices' having been appointed by Democratic governors, Bush does not support the plan, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst.

"He didn't have anything to do with it," Hirst said. "He has not been in any discussions to expand the Supreme Court and his power over the Supreme Court, and he doesn't see a reason for any changes that would allow for the expansion."

State Sen. Skip Campbell, a liberal Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, sponsored the proposal. His bill also gives the governor the power to select the chief justice of the court, subject to Senate confirmation.

Campbell said Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, one of the key backers of the law to speed up executions, approached him with the idea. Campbell, who is considering a run for attorney general in 2002, said he decided to support the idea because other measures being discussed were even more "draconian."

A constitutional amendment proposed by Rep. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, for instance, would strip the Supreme Court of its ability to make rules such as those governing criminal court procedures.

"The Republicans wanted to meddle with the court, and they were looking for a vehicle to meddle," Campbell said. "I felt that at least if I was driving the vehicle, it ain't going to be going 60 mph in the wrong direction."

Campbell said that adding two new justices would help the court with its heavy workload.

But former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Grimes, a relatively conservative justice appointed by Republican Gov. Bob Martinez who served from 1987 to 1997, opposes both Campbell's and Crist's plans.

"The more justices you have, the more difference of opinions you are going to have and the longer it will take to get the case out," said Grimes. "I think you ought not to change the system just because at a given time a particular influence on the court may prevail that you don't agree with."

Democrats, who have been charging for months that Bush and Republican lawmakers have no respect for the constitutionally mandated separation of power between branches of government, were bewildered and angry at Campbell's explanation.

"The governor can oppose this without expending any political capital and still be secretly gleeful that he gets to make the additional appointments," said Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs.

Bush appears to be keeping an open mind about other proposals that would give him more influence over the judicial nominating process.

In recent months, he has attacked the commissions that recommend candidates for judicial vacancies for failing to nominate enough women and minorities.

Last year, Bush shot down a proposal backed by the Christian Coalition that would have allowed him to immediately replace the Chiles appointees with his own.

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