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Lawmakers look at ways to hem in vexing judiciary

Several bills would give the governor more control over the judicial branch.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- The ceremonial opening day of the 2000 legislative session found Florida Supreme Court justices in the House chambers, mingling and chatting with lawmakers. But the show of amicability belied the underlying tension between the court and the other two branches of government: the governor's office and the Legislature.

At a news conference on Friday, Republican House Speaker John Thrasher said he will revive a proposal to allow Gov. Jeb Bush to add two new justices to the seven-member Supreme Court. Earlier this week, the Senate sponsor of the proposal withdrew the bill after facing intense criticism from his Democratic colleagues and the Florida Bar. Calling that decision regrettable, Thrasher said he has asked Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, to file the bill in the House.

"We're still going to take a look at it," Thrasher said.

Some of the key components of the Republican agenda are now making their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, including a new school voucher program, a law to limit the legal liability of businesses, a law requiring minors seeking abortions to notify their parents and, most recently, a law to speed up executions by limiting the number of appeals by death row inmates.

Although House lawmakers in particular have been critical of the court, arguing that it is too liberal, Thrasher said his main concern is the court's backlog of cases.

"Workload is the biggest thing," Thrasher said.

If the plan were to pass, the question would be put before voters in the form of a ballot initiative.

Several other bills would give the governor more control over the judicial branch. Several would allow him to put more of his own appointees on the panels that nominate candidates for vacancies on the bench.

One would cede to the Legislature the court's ability to make its rules on issues such as criminal procedure. One of the key issues in the case over the new death penalty appeals law is whether the Legislature trampled on the court's right to make its own rules by passing time limits and caps on those appeals.

Among those raising questions is former Justice Ben Overton, who said that the current system of selecting judges to fill vacancies is designed to ensure that decisions are based on qualifications, not political affiliations. "The quality of judges that comes from that process, forgetting about myself, is much better," Overton said.

Both Overton and former Justice Stephen Grimes said they opposed any attempt to strip the court of its rule-making ability.

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