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May 15, 2017
Court-related measures come down to the wire

As leaders of the Florida House and Senate scrambled to work out a budget, three high-profile measures affecting the court system died at the end of the legislative session.

A proposed constitutional amendments imposing term limits on Florida’s appellate judiciary did not pass. The term limits amendment passed the House but was never considered by a Senate committee. That made it unlikely — but still barely possible — that it would be considered on the Senate floor. That long shot never happened.

An effort to remove Supreme Court oversight from judicial education also died at the end of the session. While bills passed their first two committees each in the House and Senate, they were never considered in their final committees of reference. Neither bill made it to the floor of either chamber.

A third issue, concerned with the time the Supreme Court takes to make its decisions, also died when the session ended.

Much uncertainty surrounded legislation because of the lateness of agreement for the 2017-18 budget. House and Senate leaders agreed the session would be extended from its scheduled Friday, May 5, adjournment until Monday May 8, but only budget-related matters would be taken up May 8, and all other legislation would either be passed by May 5 or die. The May 5 limit for nonbudget issues was hours after this News went to press.

Term Limits
Opposing terms limits for any Florida judges is a top legislative priority of The Florida Bar and virtually every one of the Bar’s sections and divisions also went on record against any such amendment.

The Bar closely monitored the bills and also worked with other groups that opposed the amendment.

“We’re thankful that a broad coalition of business groups, attorney groups, and consumer groups expressed their concern that this would be very harmful to the independence and the quality of the judiciary, so we’re glad to see that this did not pass,” said Board of Governors member Gary Lesser, who chairs the Bar’s Legislation Committee.

The Senate Judiciary Committee never took up its version of the amendment, SJR 482, after the House passed HJR 1 on March 29, with one vote more than the 60 percent approval needed.

Without any consideration by committee, it would have taken extraordinary maneuvering to get the measure to the Senate floor. It was not included in the last-minute compromising that encompassed the state budget and several other matters. The House and Senate proposed term limit amendments, which would have gone to voters on the November 2018 general election ballot, differed slightly.

HJR 1 provided that after they were appointed, district court of appeal judges and Supreme Court justices could not appear on the merit retention ballot more than twice. The Senate bill limited DCA judges to three appearances on the merit retention ballot and justices to two appearances. It also required that new Supreme Court justices must have had at least one year’s experience as a judge at the time they were appointed to the court.

There are still two more opportunities to place a term limits amendment before voters next year. The Legislature could pass the amendment in its 2018 legislative session, which begins in January. In addition, an amendment could be proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission, the 34-member citizen panel that has just begun its work and is holding a series of hearings around the state.

Judicial Education
The bills on judicial education had their genesis in legislator claims that the current Florida Courts Education Council, which is staffed by the Office of the State Courts Administrator, has high administrative costs and the number of employees has grown faster than the number of judges.

But OSCA countered that the number of employees has been relatively stable and only the source of paying for those employees, either state general revenues or court trust funds, has changed. OSCA also contended most employees work on directly providing or supporting education for judges and court staff, and only 12 percent goes to administrative costs. In various committee meetings, legislators put that administrative cost at 44 percent to more than 50 percent.

The bills would have removed the FCEC from direct Supreme Court supervision, including the ability of the court to appoint its members, some of whom are nonjudges. Instead the council would consist of five district court of appeal judges, 10 circuit court judges, and two county court judges. It would also be housed at the First DCA. (Original versions of the bills required the council to be housed in the Orlando area.)

The Senate legislation, SB 748, passed the Judiciary Committee and the Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations, but was never taken up in the Appropriations Committee. The House bill, HB 175, passed the Civil Justice and Claims Subcommittee and the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, but languished since late March in the Judiciary Committee.

Annual Reports
Perhaps the most interesting journey involved bills ordering the Supreme Court to submit an annual report listing cases that took longer than 180 days to decide either after oral argument or after submissions were completed in cases that did not have oral argument. The court also would have to explain why it took so long to decide those cases.

Reportedly, language stipulating those conditions was considered in the annual appropriations bill, but in the end, was not included.

Even without the budget bill, there was considerable legislative maneuvering on the issue.

The House passed its version, HB 301, on March 10 by a 78-37 vote. The Senate took a different route. In the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, amended the reporting bill, SB 878, on to SB 196, which dealt with juvenile civil citations for nonviolent first offenses. SB 196 passed the committee 16-1 on April 18.

When the bill came up on the Senate floor on April 28, Flores spent most of the time explaining the civil citation provisions, which are intended to bring uniformity to the way juvenile civil citations are handled statewide. She noted some counties handle virtually all nonviolent first offenses by juveniles with a civil citation and a diversion program, which spares the juvenile a permanent criminal record and results in less recidivism than if they had been criminally charged.

Other counties do relatively few civil citations and diversions, Flores said, which means juveniles facing similar charges in different counties are treated differently. The section of the bill dealing with the Supreme Court reporting requirements got only a passing mention, and Flores acknowledged the House legislation did not include the juvenile civil citation provisions. A separate House bill on that issue, HB 213, was never heard in committee. The Senate took up HB 301, replaced its language with that in CS/CS/SB 196, and sent it back to the House.

When the revised legislation was returned to the House, Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, filed an amendment to the Senate amendment to add to the bill a civil citation system for adult offenders, which had been contained in HB 205. That had passed all three of its reference committees and had been pending on the House calendar when the Senate took its action.

Neither HB 301 or SB 196 ultimately passed.

There reportedly also was to be another attempt in the closing hours of the session to put the reporting language into HB 441, which exempts clerks of court from liability if filers fail to remove confidential or sensitive information from court submissions. That didn’t happen, although that bill did pass.

Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, sponsor of the House legislation, explained that Rule of Judicial Administration 2.250 sets an aspirational standard of 180 days for deciding appellate cases once they are ready for judicial action, and that the Supreme Court has failed to meet that standard in almost half of all its cases in the past 10 years and only in 25 of 85 cases last year. The bills required the annual report to be submitted every September 30.

[Revised: 04-24-2018]