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Bills place Florida Bar in state's cross hairs

Infuriated by court decisions on their laws, legislators begin stripping the Bar of its power.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


Infuriated by court decisions on their laws, legislators begin stripping the Bar of its power.

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Bar lobbyist Steve Metz compared his life Tuesday to the Siege of Stalingrad, as he tried to stop a bill that would force the Bar to get legislative approval of its annual budget.

"If you haven't seen the movie, Enemy at the Gate, you've no idea what it's like to represent the Bar," Metz told members of the House Fiscal Responsibility Council.

That was downstairs.

Upstairs, the Senate Judiciary Committee was stripping away most of the Bar's influence in selecting judges.

It was that kind of day in a Legislature bubbling with anger toward the courts and the Bar that has helped select judges.

Metz, a lobbyist for 26 years, says he's never faced so much sniper fire.

Bar president Herman Russomanno vehemently opposed the Judicial Nominating Commission bill that won approval in the Senate committee, 8-2.

"This is a historic change," Russomanno told the committee. "If there is a change to be made, it should be done with study. If it's not broke, don't fix it."

The mere disagreement with a judge's ruling is not sufficient grounds to change a system that has been working properly for 30 years, Russomanno argued.

Legislators also accused the Bar of failing to do enough to promote the appointment of women and minorities as they approved a bill that would allow governors to appoint all of the members of the commissions that interview applicants for judicial vacancies and recommend candidates to the governor.

Under current law the Bar picks three members, the governor picks three, and those six select three others.

The bill, which appears headed toward approval in both houses, would reduce the size of the commissions to seven members and allow the Bar to recommend candidates for three of the positions.

The governor could reject any or all of the Bar's recommendations and would retain the authority to appoint all seven.

The original bill approved by the House would have left the Bar without any input into the selection of the commissions.

Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, offered the compromise amendment that has been worked out by legislators caught between the fury of the state Bar and the anger of House Speaker Tom Feeney and other legislators, angered by court decisions overturning laws passed by the Legislature.

Senate President John McKay has indicated he'll take the compromise version of the bill but says he is not interested in taking up many of the other court-bashing bills moving in the House.

Feeney strongly supports efforts to change the very nature of the judicial system. And it was at Feeney's insistence that the House committee on Tuesday approved a bill that would force the Bar to get legislative approval of its $39-million budget despite the fact that there is no state money involved. The Bar budget is raised from fees and dues to members.

Feeney said he believes lawyers are treated differently from other professions who are subject to legislative review and licensing by a state agency.

By being allowed to regulate themselves, the lawyers have "an almost incestuous relationship with the Bar," Feeney said.

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