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Measure to weaken judiciary advances

legislature 2000
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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- One day after the state Supreme Court heard arguments that a newly passed death penalty appeals law is unconstitutional, a proposal backers hope could settle the question once and for all sailed through a House committee Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace, would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot giving the Legislature more power over the judicial branch. Ultimately, voters would have the final say.

Over the objections of the Florida Bar, the bill passed 6 to 1 out of the House Judiciary Committee, with every Republican voting for it.

"Let the people of Florida decide who they want making their laws -- an elected body ... or a group of elite individuals who are generally appointed for life?" said Crist. "We are the ones that if the public doesn't like what we are doing, they can vote our butts out. That's not true of the courts."

The catalyst for the bill is a law passed during January's special legislative session that repealed the court's current rules on death penalty appeals. The law attempted to replace them with limits on the number of appeals a death row inmate can file strict timelines within which they must file them. The law is now on hold while the court reviews it.

The constitution does not give the Legislature the authority to make laws relating to the practice or procedures of the courts, which is one of the arguments being used to challenge the new law.

The constitutional amendment pushed by Crist:

States that nothing in the constitution prohibits the Legislature from setting time limits within which death row inmates must challenge their convictions or sentences.

Prohibits the Supreme Court from adopting rules that conflict with laws passed by the Legislature.

Makes it easier for the Legislature to repeal court rules by requiring only a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds vote.

Crist's proposal comes in the midst of escalating tensions between the Republican-led Legislature and the judicial branch and at a time when key components of Gov. Jeb Bush's agenda are being challenged in court. It is one of several bills to give elected officials more control over the judiciary.

"It appears that the Florida Legislature ... seeks to be involved in some kind of turf war," said Rep. Curt Levine, D-Boca Raton, the lone no vote.

The bill is opposed by the Florida Bar and the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, which argue that it violates the constitutionally mandated separation of powers between the three branches of government.

Edith Osman, president of the Florida Bar, said her group rarely takes positions on matters before the Legislature.

"We do, however, take positions that relate to the administration of justice and our democratic system," she said. "We have some concerns in those areas."

The proposal is supported by death penalty proponents like Crist as well as the Christian Coalition and other anti-abortion groups that have been unhappy with the court's rulings in recent years.

"We've got an unaccountable judiciary and this will inject some accountability," said John Dowless, a director for the state's Christian Coalition. Gov. Bush has not yet taken a public position on the bill. His top death penalty adviser sat next to Crist in the front row as it was being deliberated.

Crist said he is pushing the bill because he believes the court often makes policy from the bench. As an example, he said the court adopted rules that allowed criminal defense lawyers to take depositions during the discovery period of a trial.

"It's extremely costly," Crist said. "That should be a legislative decision."

The bill is clearly on a fast track in the House -- it's next step is a vote by the full chamber. The Senate will also consider a similar bill.

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