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Power play threatens our system of fair play

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2000

Trouble is brewing. The natives are restless. One of Florida's three branches of government, the Legislature, is fed up with another branch, the judiciary.

This is not a surprise. The conservative Legislature wants to change the world. It passes laws willy-nilly.

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But every time the Legislature passes a big law, some party pooper files a lawsuit against it.

School vouchers? Nope.

Faster executions? Hold your horses, young fellers.

"Choose Life" license tags were delayed by a lawsuit. Parental notification for abortions went straight to court. "Tort reform," which makes it harder for little people to sue businesses, is still being challenged.

What fun is it to be the Legislature if the courts never let you have your way?


This is why in February the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Thrasher, gave a speech in Tallahassee that was a warning shot across the Supreme Court's bow.

"Every significant piece of legislation that we passed produced a lawsuit," the Republican speaker complained. "That atmosphere is bad for business."

Bad for business. That is about as bad a sin as there is, isn't it?

The frustrated Legislature is now talking about changing the basic rules of the game.

Some of the ideas being kicked around this year include:

Adding more justices to the Supreme Court so the Republican governor could get some fresh (and friendlier) blood on there.

Giving the governor's appointees more votes on the committees that nominate judges.

Taking away the Supreme Court's power to write its own rules for how to handle cases.

Taking away the Supreme Court's power to control its own budget.

Add it all up, and this is a big deal. More than two centuries after the American experiment began, and after more than 150 years of statehood, one branch of Florida's government wants to significantly reduce the power of another.

This is not a "conservative" approach, but what the heck.

The Legislature cannot do any of these things by itself. It must have the approval of the voters to amend the Florida Constitution.

Sure, we voters could hog-tie the Supreme Court if we wanted. We could rename it the "High Council of Bug-Eyed Goobers." We could require the justices to wear orange robes, meet at midnight and shine the governor's shoes daily.

The question is whether we want to.

I do not care how many justices there are on the Supreme Court. Seven is fine. Nine would be fine, too. Neither do I care whether the governor can stack the deck in the nominating committees. He's the governor; let him pick who he wants.

But the attempts to hijack the courts' independence, by taking over their rules and their money, are childish and short-sighted. Because the Legislature today is made up of Republicans, and most of the Supreme Court justices today were appointed by Democrats, we should rip up the Constitution?

What did they expect? They tried to pass school vouchers, take away little people's right to sue big corporations, and kill death row inmates faster, regardless of the merits of the case.

To pass these dramatic changes and then to argue that no one should be able to challenge them in court is arrogant beyond belief. It is the tactic of a 5-year-old, who changes the rules of the game according to whether he is winning or losing at the moment.

The Legislature should:

One: Let the Republican governor appoint his judges. It's his turn.

Two: Work responsibly to pass constitutional laws, instead of vote-grabbing stuff that everybody knows will be thrown out.

Three: Leave the Constitution alone.

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