The Florida Legislature would gain greater authority over the state Supreme Court and the rules governing state courts if voters approve constitutional Amendment 5 in the Nov. 6 election.
The proposal, pushed through the Legislature by outgoing Republican Speaker Dean Cannon, is seen by the GOP and several conservative groups as crucial to making the court more accountable. Opponents, including The Florida Bar and trial lawyers’ groups, contend it’s a power grab and a blatant threat to the judicial independence.
If approved, Amendment 5 would take sole authority to appoint Supreme Court justices away from the governor and subject them to confirmation by the state Senate. It would also allow both houses of the Florida Legislature to repeal court rules with a simple majority vote, rather than the two-thirds vote now required.
Lastly, the amendment would open to the House speaker now-confidential Judicial Qualification Commission files regarding investigations into allegations of misconduct by judges. In Florida, the House is responsible for impeachment proceedings against judges.
Like all proposed constitutional amendments, it must be approved by at least 60 percent of voters to pass.
Republicans have been highly critical of the Supreme Court for the past two years and are also leading a separate campaign urging voters to oust three justices — Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Fred Lewis — who were appointed or co-appointed by former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Among other things, Republicans were angered when the court in 2010 struck from the ballot three proposed constitutional amendments pushed through the GOP-led Legislature, including a property tax reduction measure. The court majority said it rejected the measures because they had defective ballot summaries.
The GOP and its allies say it’s time to restore a balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches of government.
“It is important for the judiciary to remain independent and impartial, but in order for that to happen citizens must be knowledgeable about the court’s decisions and voice their concerns when the court oversteps their authority,” said Slade O’Brien, state director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity that has been running ads about the Supreme Court.
“We are calling attention to the court’s decisions that have in fact politicized the bench,” O’Brien said.
Similar constitutional amendments backed by conservatives were placed on the ballot this year in Missouri and Arizona.
Opponents say the amendment is an attempt by the GOP to remove potential judicial obstacles to its agenda and remove court rules it opposes on largely ideological grounds, such as Florida’s “speedy trial” rule that requires dismissal of a felony case unless it goes to trial within 175 days of arrest. That rule can be waived by the defendant, and often is to buy time to build a defense.
The Florida Bar Board of Governors recently voted to oppose Amendment 5, noting its longstanding opposition to any changes in the Supreme Court’s power to adopt rules for all the state’s courts.
“The Florida Bar supports a fair and impartial judicial branch free from any political influence and true to the separation of governmental powers that is critical to our democracy,” said Gwynne Young, a Tampa attorney who is president of The Florida Bar. “The courts’ rulemaking authority should be primarily within the purview of the court.”
Cannon had initially pushed an even more far-reaching proposal to divide the Supreme Court into separate civil and criminal appeals divisions and also to give the governor authority to appoint the chief justice, now chosen by the justices themselves. But that measure was watered down amid strong opposition from many lawyers and judges.