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Old warrior steels for a fight with legislators


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2000

The Legislature has done it now. They've gone and gotten Chesterfield Smith's dander up.

Smith, the founding partner of Holland & Knight, the state's biggest law firm, and a former president of the American Bar Association, can be a formidable enemy. Just look at what happened to Richard Nixon after Smith jumped into the Watergate fray.

He may be 82, but he still cares about the law and the courts of Florida. So it should come as no surprise that he started calling on a few friends when he noticed that the Legislature is trying to tinker with the balance of power among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

There is no name is more revered in Florida's legal circles. And no one more protective of the Constitution.

"I think it is extremely outrageous," Smith said this week as he discussed a proposed constitutional amendment that would subject the court to legislative rule.

"I feel very strongly," Smith added. "I want to knock the hell out of everybody who wants to upset the balance of power between the three branches of government. Anyone who wants to stalk the courts or have judges who favor one opinion, I don't like them."

Earlier this week he called Bill McBride, the managing partner at Holland & Knight. McBride is likely to head up whatever commission or action group emerges to fight any attempt to disrupt that balance of power.

"We're not sure what form it will take," McBride said. "We want to find out if this is a serious threat. If it's not going anywhere and it's just a bunch of blow hards, we may not need to do anything."

Florida should not be making big decisions about government just because a few people are ticked off with a particular decision, McBride says.

"I'm old enough to see how well the balance of power works," McBride added. "Anyone with thought understands that our government works better than any government in the world."

Smith and McBride are willing to put their firm out front in support of an independent judiciary.

McBride knows the power of his longtime mentor and senior law partner. He can recall that day in 1973 when Smith interrupted a football game they were attending with a decision that became a major step along the road to Nixon's downfall.

As president of the American Bar Association, Smith decided to speak out after Nixon fired Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. His statement declaring that "no man was above the law" has long been credited with helping oust the president.

Smith denounced Cox's firing as "a clear and present danger" to the U.S. Constitution. Today he sees the state Legislature as a clear and present danger to the Florida Constitution.

Republicans in the House are pushing bills that would allow the Legislature to overrule the Supreme Court on executing death row inmates or adopting rules.

House Speaker John Thrasher says he's not about to stifle debate on the bills and notes that any decision to change the balance would be left up to Floridians who might vote on an amendment.

"I'm in favor of discussing it," Thrasher said. "I will wait and see what to do about it."

Senate President Toni Jennings doesn't seem interested in helping the court bashers.

"We don't have the same interest in reforming the courts that the House does," she said.

If approved by both houses, the constitutional amendments would go directly to the ballot.

If legislators are looking over their shoulders, they might see a white haired, courtly gentleman who carries a rather large stick.

Maybe it will give them second thoughts.

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