Fla. SC overhaul passes House

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 18, 2011, 12:33pm


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - Bills aimed at modernizing and improving the efficiency of Florida's court system passed the state's House of Representatives last week.

House Joint Resolution 7111 and House Bills 7199 and 7101, which passed Friday, would mean an overhaul to the state's Supreme Court.

HJR 7111 expands the number of justices on the high court from seven to 10, with five justices permanently assigned to a civil division and five justices permanently assigned to a criminal division. The governor appoints a Chief Justice for each division, with the overall administrative responsibilities for the judicial branch in the position of Chief Justice of the Court rotating between the chief justices of the civil and criminal divisions on a four-year basis.

The legislation also provides for Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices. A judicial appointment would become automatic if the Senate failed to vote on the nomination within 90 days.

HJR 7111 also expands the ability of each division of the Supreme Court to consider appeals by removing the jurisdictional prerequisite that an express and direct conflict exist between the District Courts of Appeal or the Supreme Court on the same question of law.

The bill further provides the state House of Representatives with "meaningful access" to the files and records of the Judicial Qualifications Commission but maintains the confidentiality of those records unless the House initiates an impeachment proceeding.

In addition, the bill allows the Legislature to repeal a court rule by general law that expresses the policy behind the repeal and allows the court to readopt the rule in conformance with the expressed policy.

The legislation also provides a minimum appropriation for the courts from all revenue sources equal to 2.25 percent of the state's General Revenue.

HB 7101 provides that all members of each Judicial Nominating Commission, or JNC, are appointed by the governor and to a term concurrent with the term of the governor.

The bill terminates the terms of all current members of the JNC, but allows for the reappointment of those members at the governor's discretion.

It also reduces the size of each JNC from nine members to seven and allows the governor to appoint a new member to a JNC if a commission member is unable to complete his or her term.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said the Legislature has the responsibility to look at what is working in the state and to correct or improve what is not working.

"The current court system suffers from significant structural and financial problems, and the thoughtful proposals passed today by the Florida House will give voters the chance to address these issues and to support reforms that will enable the judiciary to be more responsive and better equipped to meet the needs of today's Florida," he said in a statement.

Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, sponsored HJR 7111 and HB 7199. He pointed to the state's number of post-conviction appeals cases, which take up about 12 percent of the state high court's caseload but account for nearly half of its workload.

"By creating two divisions in the Supreme Court, and capitalizing on the expertise of justices who have a singular focus on either the field of criminal or civil law, cases will be resolved in a more timely manner. Additionally, specialization will lead to more accurate resolutions of appeals cases," he said in a statement.

He said the proposals also address the charge that the state's judicial branch is underfunded and judicial dockets are overcrowded by providing a "stable minimum appropriation."

According to the Miami Herald, there currently is no companion bill in the Senate, and 60 percent of Florida voters would have to approve the amendment for it to become part of the state constitution.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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