- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

The Florida Legislature has gone to war with state judges in the wake of last year's long presidential-election recount battle.

Lawmakers are moving dozens of measures aimed at diluting Supreme Court authority and making it harder for justices to keep their jobs. One judge fired back by issuing an unprecedented order forbidding a joint Senate-House committee hearing.

Senators and representatives armed with toothbrushes in case they were sent to jail ignored him.

Fueled by high-octane anger over the Florida Supreme Court's handling of Bush v. Gore, the Republican-dominated Legislature mustered strong support for a revolution to give the governor total control of judicial appointments eliminating the Florida Bar's direct involvement and to move bills that would strip the high court of some jurisdiction and perhaps add two seats.

"It's payback time," complained Herman Russomanno, president of the 67,000-member Florida Bar. "If you start to politicize the process right now, you go backwards."

Legislators say the court politicized things.

"We have a court that usurps legitimate legislative authority and is result-oriented at the expense of limiting its own activities," said House Speaker Tom Feeney, a lawyer armed with a poll of 50,000 voters to rebut charges it is radical to hobble activist courts.

"The true radicals in this debate are those who would support the Florida Supreme Court's disenfranchisement of the people by calling it judicial independence," said Mr. Feeney, the Orange County Republican who controls the legislative calendar and the purse strings for state government, including the courts.

The current session has another month to run and Republicans control more than 60 percent of the seats in each house of the Legislature.

The state high court ruled 7-0 in November to let selected hand recounts of presidential ballots continue beyond the legal deadline, and in December voted 4-3 to permit statewide recounting of more than 60,000 so-called "undervote" ballots. The U.S. Supreme Court nullified both decisions, and the state's 25 electoral votes decided the election in favor of the Republican candidate, and now president, George W. Bush.

The state House already has voted to give the governor a free hand in filling court vacancies. That bill awaits action in the Senate, whose Republican leader predicts it will pass in some form.

"The Senate may very well be interested in doing something like that," Senate Majority Leader James E. King Jr., Jacksonville Republican, told The Washington Times.

"The overall mood in the Senate is that we don't want this to seem like it's a knee-jerk reaction to punish the Supreme Court's treatment of the presidential election. I think in the House there is enough belief there was so much abuse by the Supreme Court that they want to make some changes," Mr. King said.

"The House looks at it that if we have a Republican Senate and Republican House and a Republican Cabinet, why do we have a Democratic Supreme Court?" Mr. King said.

Rep. John P. Seiler, Fort Lauderdale Democrat, called that view shortsighted and opposes "fixing a system that isn't broken."

"It has become a straight party issue, but a number of Republicans fear trouble if they actually get what they're asking for," Mr. Seiler, a lawyer, said in an interview. "The minute you come back with a Democratic governor or House or Senate, people will start screaming about checks and balances."

Somewhat unexpectedly, the prime mover is Rep. Frederick C. Brummer, Apopka Republican and accountant by profession, who said the fact he is not a lawyer frees him from pressure by the Florida Bar.

"To them, I'm a right-wing radical lackey of the fundamentalist and business communities," said the man who filed dozens of proposals to revamp state courts from top to bottom, including the judicial-nominating bill that passed the House 65-50 on March 22.

If it also passes the Senate, as Mr. King predicts, each governor could replace all nine members of the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC). Five members would be lawyers and four could neither be lawyers nor law-firm employees.

JNC members now serve four-year terms. Three are chosen by the governor, three by the Florida Bar Board of Governors and the remaining three by the other six members.

Mr. King, the Senate majority leader, believes the organized bar is not totally opposed to revamping the JNC, but fears that bill might be loaded up with unacceptable amendments that could pass as well.

Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said none of the justices would comment now on legislative proposals. Chief Justice Charles Wells recently told a gathering of editors: "I think that, in the end, the necessity of the court carrying out its function overcomes the frustration with individual decisions."

By the sheerest of chance it was Mr. Brummer, the sponsor of most bills, who was presiding as chairman last Tuesday when Circuit Judge Ralph Smith had papers served ordering a halt to a committee hearing on an unrelated matter involving negotiations with a state employees union.

"It's entirely ironic that it was me," Mr. Brummer said in an interview. He assumes that ignoring the order apparently will have no consequences for him, but said it stirred many lawmakers.

"To me, it was a matter of pure arrogance, as we so often see," said Mr. Brummer, who was surprised to enjoy such wide legislative support on issues he originally raised in his 1998 campaign to differentiate himself from two other Republican candidates.

"The public opinion that resulted from the election fiasco is letting me push the issue more aggressively. You use public opinion to drive your issues, but you can't base your issues on public opinion," Mr. Brummer said.

Other aspects of Mr. Brummer's proposals would:

• Require a judge to receive approval from two-thirds of the voters in periodic retention elections to keep his or her seat, an increase from the present 50 percent, which has proved easy to get with no opponent.

• Limit all courts' jurisdiction to "actual controversies," sharply restricting Supreme Court power to issue advisory opinions and hear cases by parties not directly involved in a dispute.

• Forbid the courts to alter legislative spending laws.

• Remove the requirement that lawyers pay dues to a bar association as a prerequisite to practice in Florida courts.

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