Our Opinion: Cross-examining Cannon

Editorial | Tallahassee Democrat | 04/10/2011

Legislative proposals to reform the judicial branch of government are solutions in search of problems.

What is problematic for the Florida court system is its inconsistent and politicized funding, which recently relied on fees from foreclosure cases — a good idea until the number of foreclosure cases dropped.

Setting an adequate and specific level of funding from general revenue that the state collects could help neutralize the annual squabble over whether the courts are doing what the legislators in charge like.

Funding consistency does need to be achieved this session.

The circuit courts, in particular, are struggling, and those are the ones closest to the average citizen. Yet they have a 31-percent higher caseload than the national average and Florida's 45th in the nation in terms of judges per population. The bench is lean and overworked — with judges doing work that clerks, if they had enough, could do more cost-effectively.

Judges are also — and it's a bad year to say it — underpaid compared with judges nationwide, making it hard to attract the wisdom and experience needed in our honorable courts.

So it is curious that so much attention is being paid to House Speaker Dean Cannon's drive to reform the judicial branch in dramatic ways that far exceed any perceived need.

His audacious reformation plan has come from out of the blue, catching the judicial branch off guard and The Florida Bar unprepared to carefully cross-examine the proposals.

Mr. Cannon is being accused of attempting to undermine redistricting of legislative and congressional districts, but his reforms would be more far-reaching than that. In a state where gubernatorial power is already great, splitting the
present seven-member Supreme Court into civil and criminal divisions — adding three members (five in each division) — and allowing the governor to appoint the chief justice, plus three new justices, is a big addition to any governor's political clout.

Democrats argue that Mr. Cannon and allies are indulging in payback for the Supreme Court's removal from the 2010 ballot of two redistricting amendments that the Legislature had promoted — and that were more GOP friendly than the "Fair
Districts" ones that passed.

The high court must approve redistricting maps in time for the June 2012 candidate qualifying. "Stacking" the court with justices friendly to a GOP-strong map is also suspected as a motive.

But if the amendment to split the court wouldn't go on the ballot until 2012, it would be not ahead of but at the same time as the 2012 elections. (It would take a three-fourths vote to put it on the Jan. 31, 2012, presidential primary ballot, meaning
Democrats could stop that acceleration even if the map-drawing could be done that fast.)

Opponents also suggest that Mr. Cannon's plan is about rushing through more death penalty cases, an always popular issue in Florida. Except there isn't any backlog of capital cases.

If the goal is more efficiency in dividing cases, there might be some benefit. Yet, why should the legislative branch determine how the judicial branch handles its routine workload?

Mr. Cannon is a reasonable man and has backed off on some of his plans, including requiring a 60-percent vote for merit-retention of Supreme Court justices (a sure-fire blow to minorities). As of last week, he also agreed to divide the Supreme Court into two separate divisions, not more costly separate courts.

Lawmakers often act in haste — and let the repenting occur on some one else's watch. But the reality is that there's no convincing evidence that the judiciary needs this complete overhaul.

It does need consistent funding and more respect as the independent branch of government it is.

If major reforms are needed, let them be contemplated at the next Constitution Revision Commission — the methodical system Floridians set up, and which will get to work again in just seven years.

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