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High court denied funds for judges

Some Democrats say lawmakers are acting out of spite over a death row appeals law rejected by the state Supreme Court.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Upset with the state Supreme Court's decision to strike down a law limiting death penalty appeals, the Republican-controlled Legislature is fighting back with a potent weapon: its grip on the state's purse strings.

The Legislature is refusing to fund the state high court's request for an additional 43 judges. The court asked for additional county and circuit judges to ensure that courts around the state do not become backlogged.

According to the Supreme Court, the judges are needed because workload is increasing at a time when the courts are underequipped because past requests for additional judges underestimated the real need. New get-tough-on-crime laws passed last year also play a role in the need, according to the court.

But the House and Senate did not include money in their budgets to hire even one additional judge. The Legislature also is not giving the judicial system large budget increases to implement the court's suggested reforms to reduce unnecessary delays in carrying out the death penalty.

"The general feeling on the House side is that if the court isn't going to go all the way to do what is necessary to reform this process, why expect the Legislature to fully fund a partial fix?," said state Rep. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who sponsored the death penalty appeals law that the court found unconstitutional less than two weeks ago.

The Supreme Court had asked for two additional circuit judges and two county judges to serve Hillsborough, where Crist lives. Pasco and Pinellas each would have gotten an additional circuit judge and county judge. The court also asked for an additional circuit court judge for the area that encompasses Hernando and Citrus.

House Speaker John Thrasher said the Legislature may take action to give judges raises, but that the issue of additional judges will have to be put off until next year.

Democrats -- even those who supported the death penalty appeals law -- charge that the Republican-controlled Legislature is acting out of spite.

"The political process is full of retribution, and this session its payback time for the court," said Rep. John Cosgrove, D-Miami. "This Legislature is on a mission to undermine the judicial branch and create as much chaos as possible."

The Legislature and the court have been involved in a high-stakes chess game over the death penalty all year.

During a January special session, the Legislature passed a bill to speed up executions by limiting the number of death row appeals an inmate can file and enacting strict time limits within which those appeals must be filed.

The state Supreme Court struck down that law April 14. Instead, it proposed its own set of rules aimed at cutting the time between sentencing and execution.

But in court's written opinion, the justices challenged the Legislature, saying that their new rules could not be put into effect without a change to the public records law and adequate funding for the court system and the lawyers who defend indigent death row inmates.

"Along with the input of the Legislature, this Court is boarding a ship to set sail on a course of reform," the court wrote. "... Without the necessary funding, the ship is destined to sink."

Many lawmakers are in no mood to take orders from the court. Instead, there is a renewed effort in the House to strip the court of much of its power: The idea is to put an amendment on the ballot that would guarantee the Legislature the right to limit death penalty appeals.

"It's become a priority to have that bill heard," said state Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, who is in line to become the next House Speaker.

The Senate Judiciary Committee did vote Monday to make the court's suggested changes to the public records law so that death row lawyers can more speedily file appeals. House Speaker Thrasher said Monday that he thinks "it's important to do that."

But with less than two weeks before lawmakers head home for the year, it is far from clear whether the bill will pass both chambers. Meanwhile, the Legislature has yet to act on a recommendation by Gov. Jeb Bush's own task force to further study whether the death penalty is applied in a racially discriminatory manner.

Bush is in no rush.

"A lot of this came last in the session," said Bush's spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst. "So the task force recommendations, as well as recommendations by the Supreme Court, will all be discussed over the course of this year. At this late date, it's difficult to take (immediate) action."

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