(Editor's Note Update: The JNC bills referred to in the following story died in the waning days of the legislative session. A complete update will be included in the April 1 News.)
By Gary Blankenship
An attempt to increase the governor’s authority over members of judicial nominating commissions faced an uncertain future in the closing days of the Legislature.
The House passed its bill after removing another part of the bill that would have eased the way for retired judges to serve as senior judges. That was replaced by a program to provide scholarships for women and minority law students.
HB 971 also was amended to abolish the judicial nominating commission that recommends candidates to be judges of compensation claims. Those duties would be transferred to the First District Court of Appeal JNC.
The bill passed the House of Representatives 77-35 on February 24.
But, at the same time, SB 1570 appeared to stall in the upper chamber. It had been scheduled to be heard before the Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations on February 28, but was removed from the agenda. That was the last meeting of the subcommittee for the session, raising questions whether the bill could be resurrected.
The Senate bill did not include the scholarship or First DCA JNC issues.
The Bar News was unable to reach Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, sponsor of SB 1570, for comment.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Ft. Walton Beach, sponsor of the House bill, made the changes to the lower chamber’s bill on February 16, when it was before the House Judiciary Committee. The vote in the House Judiciary Committee on February 16 cleared the way for HB 971 to be considered by the full House, which gave it final approval on February 24.
The bill changes conditions for the five members of each JNC who are directly appointed by the governor, specifying they serve at the pleasure of the governor and can be removed at any time for any reason. The bill does not affect the staggered terms of the four seats on each JNC that are filled by the governor from candidate slates nominated by The Florida Bar.
At the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Ft. Walton Beach, sponsor of the bill, said he was removing the retirement changes because it would cost the state $1.5 million in the first year, $1.6 million the second year, and $1.7 million the third year. These expenditures, he said, were too much in times of tight budgets.
“That fiscal impact was a bridge too far at this time,” he said.
In Gaetz’ initial amendment, the law student scholarships would be funded by taking the filing fees of judges who are unopposed for reelection. That would have raised an estimated $600,000 a year.
That was amended on the House floor to use $500,000 from recurring monies in the state’s General Revenue fund. The money would be allocated to The Florida Bar Foundation to be awarded through its Law Student Assistance Grant Program “for scholarships for promising female and minority law students who attend a law school in this state and who have expressed a desire to seek judicial office in the future.”
At the House Judiciary Committee, Gaetz said the fund would help increase the number of minority lawyers, both to serve on JNCs and eventually become judges.
The bill amends F.S. §440.45 to eliminate the Statewide Nominating Commission for Judges of Compensation Claims, which nominates to the governor candidates to hear workers’ compensation claims. Instead, the bill delegates that responsibility to the First DCA JNC.
Gaetz, at the committee meeting, said it was an oversight the last time the JNC process was overhauled more than 10 years ago that the change wasn’t made then.
The bill ran into a barrage of criticism on the House floor, mostly from Democratic members who argued the bill gave too much authority to the governor, undermined the independence of the judiciary, and returned Florida to a time where politics unduly influenced judicial appointments.
“Judicial nominating commissions are supposed to take politics out of the process of selecting judges; this returns us to politicization,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said the change violates the separation of powers, while Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie, said it undermined the independence of the JNCs and their mission to send the governor the most qualified applicants.
Added Rep. Rick Kriseman, R-St. Petersburg, “The minute our judiciary loses that independence, we lose our country.”
Rep. James Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, raised a procedural vote, saying the amendment using general revenues for the scholarship fund raised a fiscal issue and the bill should be referred back to a fiscal committee. But the House rejected that on a voice vote.
Gaetz rejected the arguments against the bill, saying there are always politics involved in the JNC process and it was better to have the “macro” politics of an accountable governor making the JNC appointments.
Noting the scholarship provision, Gaetz said the price for rejecting the JNC bill would also be turning down “the largest female and minority law student scholarship program in America.”