By Gary Blankenship
A bill that opponents say would eviscerate the independence of Florida’s judicial nominating commissions has cleared a House subcommittee.
The House Civil Justice Subcommittee on January 11 passed HB 971, which would provide the governor with at-will appointments to the JNCs. Sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the bill also would remove a roadblock that makes retiring judges wait a year before they can serve as senior judges.
JNCs currently have nine members serving staggered terms. Five are directly appointed by the governor, and the remaining four are appointed by the governor from three-person slates chosen by The Florida Bar Board of Governors.
HB 971 would leave the four appointments from Bar nominations unchanged. But it would make the other five seats at the pleasure of the governor, specifically giving the governor the power to remove and replace those JNC members at any time.
“The only change that is made to the judicial nominating commissions with this bill is those people who are directly appointed by the governor will serve at the pleasure of the governor,” Gaetz said.
The change “modernizes the process,” Gaetz said, although opponents said it would undermine the independence of both JNCs and the judiciary.
“If the governor can arbitrarily remove people if they don’t vote the way he wants, how does that make them independent?” asked Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Southwest Ranches. “What is the need for the JNC?”
He argued the change would make it possible for a governor to call up his direct JNC appointees and tell them who to put on the final list of candidates for a judicial vacancy that they submit to the governor.
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, called it a violation of checks and balances between the three branches of government and argued that JNCs are properly part of the judicial branch.
“I think what we have here is a bill where the JNCs frankly become meaningless,” said Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach.
“If you want to get rid of the JNCs, float that bill. Don’t do it indirectly. Floridians don’t want us playing games. Floridians don’t want us to appear to be doing something when we’re not.”
He argued the Florida Constitution creates the JNCs, and hence they are required to be independent.
Gaetz defended the bill, saying it properly places accountability on the governor for his judicial appointments. He also said he considers JNCs “antiquated” and unnecessary. He also conceded the Senate may not go along with the bill, even if it clears the House.
The bill passed the committee on a 10-5 party-line vote. It is scheduled to be heard by the Judiciary and Government Operations committees before going to the House floor.
A similar bill, SB 1570, sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, has been introduced in the Senate but has not been referred to any committee.
At this point in the 2012 session, the Bar has only expressed opposition to any legislation that would eliminate the Bar’s continued and meaningful institutional role in the judicial nominating process. The Bar is otherwise monitoring the progress of HB 971 — and similar SB 1570 — but does not have an official position on either of these bills or their other features.