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New judge selection process favored

A House committee votes for a bill that would strengthen the governor's judicial appointing power.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Bar president Herman Russomanno warned state lawmakers Tuesday that they are in danger of setting the state back 30 years in the way it selects its judges.

But the House Council for Smarter Government rejected Russomanno's advice and voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill that would sharply dilute the Bar's power to help pick who will sit on the bench in Florida.

Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, sponsored the bill that would give the governor the authority to appoint all of the members of the judicial nominating commissions that interview applicants for judicial vacancies and recommend three to six names to the governor.

Under current law, the Bar selects three members, the governor selects three and those six select three additional members.

Brummer's bill would require the governor to include five members of the Florida Bar, but the governor and not the Bar would determine who they are.

Brummer and other Republicans on the committee say the new system would make the commissions more accountable. The terms of each member would expire with the governor who appointed them.

Two Democrats on the committee objected to the change, saying it would make the state's courts more political.

"Why make it totally a governor's appointment and allow it to be a spoils system?" asked Rep. Ken Gottlieb, D-Miramar.

Russomanno said the system established after voters approved a constitutional amendment in the 1970s has worked well and produced highly qualified judges.

Wade Hopping Jr., lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, praised the bill, saying the current system seriously limits what a governor can do.

"This bill seems reasonable," said Hopping, who is a former Florida Supreme Court justice. "The governor will appoint five members of the Bar and four others."

Russomanno said the Bar has done a good job of increasing the number of minorities and women on the commissions, making them more representative of Florida. But Rep. Gaston Cantens, R-Sweetwater, noted that it took the Bar almost 30 years to appoint the first Cuban-American lawyer to a nominating commission in Miami-Dade County.

The bill is the first of several moving in the House that would dramatically change the state's judicial system. All of them will be considered at a workshop today.

A similar bill is pending in the Senate but has not been scheduled for a hearing. Senate President John McKay has been cool toward most court reforms being considered in the House but said last week he thought it'd be possible to change judicial nominating commissions.

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