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Sponsor kills proposal to pack Supreme Court

legislature 2000
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By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- It was a mystery to lawmakers of both political parties: Why would a liberal Democrat want to give Republican Gov. Jeb Bush the power to add two new justices to the state Supreme Court?

After finding himself aligned with the Christian Coalition but getting slammed by fellow Democrats and the Florida Bar, Sen. Skip Campbell quietly killed his controversial court-packing bill Wednesday. Then he offered an explanation worthy of a plot-twisting best-seller.

"This was Skip Campbell trying to protect the Supreme Court," he said late Wednesday morning. "Everyone thought I was losing my brains. I let them, because someone had to protect the system."

Campbell said that by killing his bill one day after the deadline for filing new bills, he ensured that the issue is dead for the year. He said Senate rules prevent anyone else from trying to revive the issue by tacking it onto another bill in the form of an amendment.

Mystery solved? Well, not exactly.

The rule does prevent someone from offering such an amendment to a bill being heard on the Senate floor, according to Rules Chairman Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton. But it does not necessarily prevent someone from trying to amend a bill being heard in a Senate committee.

Nevertheless, Republican Senate President Toni Jennings didn't appear to be very interested in reviving the issue. House members and the governor have in recent months bashed the state Supreme Court as too liberal.

But "those who are unhappy with the judiciary at the moment, I think, reside in places other than here," Jennings said, pointing at the Senate chamber.

Campbell, 51, has offered various explanations in recent days for his decision to push the bill. Over the weekend, Campbell said he backed the proposal because other measures being discussed were even more draconian. By sponsoring the bill, he said, he could control it and ensure no "wacko stuff" ended up passing.

On Monday, he said the Supreme Court is overworked. Two extra justices would help speed cases along.

On Wednesday morning, he said he kept his real reasons "very quiet" until the deadline to file new bills had passed. "I didn't talk to my Democratic colleagues," Campbell said. But later in the afternoon, Campbell amended his explanation, saying his intention was always "killing it or working with it." He acknowledged entertaining the possibility that the bill could help persuade the state Supreme Court to agree to a new district court of appeal in his area, something Campbell has been strongly advocating.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said that regardless of what motivated Campbell, "the right thing in terms of good public policy has been accomplished."

The state chapter of the Christian Coalition, however, was disappointed.

"That little sneak!" exclaimed John Dowless, a director with the coalition. "I hadn't thought of it before he brought it up, but I actually think it's such a great idea that we might have to come back and try again next year. So maybe he was aiding and abetting the religious conservatives after all."

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