Might is not right: A petty war on the Court

The Florida Legislature has declared a petty and unseemly war on the state’s Supreme Court. In retaliation for rulings they disagreed with, the Legislature is proposing massive overhauls of the court, intended to make the judicial branch both weaker and less independent.

One proposal would require Justices receive a 60% vote in a general election in order to retain their seat. Requiring a super-majority to be retained is intended to create political pressure on judges to make popular decisions rather than independent ones. A judiciary needs to be free of that kind of pressure. Of course the primary instigator of this bill and others – House Speaker Dean Cannon – ironically won his last election well short of the 60% threshold he would impose on judges.

Another proposal is to take away the procedural rules that have been traditionally the court’s province to write and give that task to the Legislature. That’s a stick in the eye to the court. Another measure would make sure the commissions that nominate judges are only appointed by the Governor. Currently the Bar appoints a few commissioners. That would narrow the field of acceptable candidates – anyone not passing the Governor’s rigid litmus test need not apply.

Much more offensive is Speaker Cannon’s proposal to actually do away with the court entirely and create two courts – a criminal and a civil supreme court. Most of the justices the Legislature doesn’t like would be put on the criminal court – and Governor Scott would be able to appoint new justices to create a court in his own image.

The Legislature’s tantrum stems from the Court’s decision to toss a couple constitutional amendments proposed by the legislature off the November ballot because they were confusing or simply improperly drafted. Of course the legislature crafted the amendments with the intention to confuse – but that doesn’t matter.

Might is right in the eyes of the Florida Legislature.

The ironic truth is that Florida’s Supreme Court was appointed mostly by Republicans and is considered a center-right court. While they have tossed legislatively supported items off the ballot, they have also tossed citizen-crafted initiatives that the Legislature did not support. In short, they have been fair umpires.

The legislature’s frontal attack on the court is as wrongheaded as it is small minded. And like any schoolyard bully, they picked someone who cannot fight back. The court has to remain silent and comport itself in precisely the manner you would expect of justices – while the legislature is acting, unfortunately, like the middle-school bullies they have sadly become.

Our nation, and our state, was founded on the notion that we must honor the rule of law, and the principle that a healthy and independent judiciary is a welcomed check on the unconstrained ambitions of the legislative and executive branches. It would be a sad day for my friend Dean Cannon if his legacy turns out to be something so petty and injurious to the principles that I always believed he cherished.