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Group opposes court reorganization plans

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Group opposes court reorganization plans

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J ust what exactly is the problem?

That seemed to be the consensus held by a who’s who of Florida’s legal profession as they debated the court overhaul package, HJR 7111, during a conference call on April 14, the day before the Florida House voted for the same piece of legislation, 79-38.

HJR 7111 would amend Art. V of the Florida Constitution, dividing the state Supreme Court into two separate divisions, adding three additional justices, and adding Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices, among other things.

“There is no statistic to show that the court is overloaded right now,” began former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero in his opening comments about the House’s proposal to split the court into two divisions. “Nobody in the Legislature has identified any statistics that would show an increase in justices is necessary. Our state Supreme Court has operated with seven justices for the last 70 years. There’s no reason to be changing it now.”

Bob Graham Former Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham speculated that some lawmakers may still be upset at the Supreme Court for removing three constitutional amendments from the ballot last year. Still, said Graham, there are more appropriate actions to take.

“The way to solve the problem is not by changing the fundamental independence and character of our judiciary, a decision that’s not just applicable to a limited number of cases and for an immediate period of our political life, but would be permanent transformations to the essential concept of justice in Florida,” Graham said.

Floridians for Fair and Impartial Courts — www.fairandimpartial.com — was formed to try to stop the measure, if not during the legislative session, then when the amendment is on the ballot in 2012.

Legislators push-ing for HJR 7111 claim that the bill’s initiatives would provide solutions for the inefficiency of the courts, a problem judicial advocates argue doesn’t exist.

Former Chief Justice Gerald Kogan cited a decrease in the Supreme Court’s caseload, noting that in 2006, the court had more than 1,500 pending cases. That number is now below 900.

“There’s no need for any of these so-called improvements to the system,” said Kogan. “We’re trying to fix something that, quite frankly, isn’t broken.”

Conference call attendees also addressed the oft-discussed Texas Supreme Court, which is one of two state supreme courts in the nation to be bifurcated (Oklahoma is the other). Legislators have set up the Texas court as a model for Florida to follow, but members of the judiciary question that logic.

“The Texas model is held up by proponents as an example, but Florida is beating Texas and its bifurcated system in the time from submission of the case to the written opinion,” said 12th Circuit Chief Judge Lee Haworth.

Haworth said in 2010, the Florida Supreme Court disposed of 70 percent of all its cases within 180 days of filing, and 86 percent of all cases within 365 days of filing. The court also dealt quickly with death cases. The clearance rate for capital cases was 97 percent in 2010.

Yet, during House committee and subcommittee meetings, bill sponsor Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, mentioned a number of isolated Supreme Court cases that took between 600 and 900 days to handle, reasoning that the court simply cannot manage highly complex matters, a conclusion Harry Lee Anstead, former chief justice, took exception to.

Aside from the occasional complex case, Anstead said, death cases often get tied up in the federal court system, something beyond the Florida Supreme Court’s control.

“Those cases are pending at the Supreme Court level while there may be other hearings taking place in the trial court on some issues that need to be resolved, or other issues that need to be resolved as have been pointed out in the federal district courts or somewhere in the federal chain,” said Anstead. “That case cannot have finality at the [Florida] Supreme Court level while those other matters are being resolved.

“But you don’t make dramatic and fundamental changes to a system that is working very well based on exceptions to the rule.”

Chief Judge Haworth also noted the changes the House is considering would cost $14 million in upfront costs and $7 million a year in recurring costs, as described in a report released by the Office of the State Courts Administrator.

“This direction that they’re headed in these austere times doesn’t really make a lot of sense,” Haworth said.

“At a time when we need more judges and we need more clerks and we need more state attorneys and public defenders, it’s strange to me that the Legislature would embark on a radical proposal that is extremely expensive, instead of trying to properly fund the courts,” said Neal Sonnett, a former president of the American Judicature Society.

The constituional amendment guarantees the court 2.25 percent of the state’s general revenues. Backers of the bill say the court’s current budget is equal to about 1.94 percent of general revenues.

“Until you get a definition of where that 2.25 percent is going — and who are the beneficiaries of it, and does it include salaries, does it include a lot of the other things that are so essential to the court’s budget — it is really kind of a meaningless statistic to throw out there,” said Haworth. “So until that definition occurs, the devil’s in the details here, and we haven’t seen any clarity what that would be.”

Kogan said when he was on the court dealing with budgetary matters, it wasn’t always pretty.

“We had at that time — and we have today — many members of both houses of our state Legislature who believe that our court system is an agency of the Legislature. And when I asked, ‘How can you say that when obviously we’re a third co-equal branch of government?’ their reply was, ‘We’re the group that funds you, and if we fund you, then obviously you must be an agency of the state Legislature.’”

Kogan said if that is the mindset of many legislators, “you’re going to have these types of battles.”

For now, the members of Floridians for Fair and Impartial Courts are trying to raise awareness of the issue.

“We want to be very careful that the public out there doesn’t get the impression that there is some silver bullet floating out there in the country that will solve all our problems at the highest court level by this dramatic restructuring,” said Anstead.

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