- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

MIAMI (AP) - The wording is a bit confusing, but the question for Florida voters on Amendment 3 is clear: Should the outgoing or incoming governor fill three expected vacancies on the state Supreme Court in 2019?

The Legislature placed the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot to clarify what majority Republicans said was a potential constitutional crisis. Democrats called it an attempted court-packing power grab, although it’s possible Democrat Charlie Crist would be the beneficiary if he defeats GOP Gov. Rick Scott.

Under the current rules, each of the seven Supreme Court justices must retire at age 70 but can remain on the bench until their current six-year terms expire. In 2018, justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince all have 70th birthdays. Their court terms will end Jan. 8, 2019, a gubernatorial inauguration day.

Under Amendment 3, the governor in office before the justices’ terms expire would name their replacements, not the incoming chief executive. Florida governors cannot serve three consecutive terms, so Scott would be leaving as 2019 begins if he is re-elected next month.

Republicans who pushed through the measure say it’s needed to avoid judicial uncertainty and a potentially lengthy political battle.

“This is not about government overreach,” said Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, during House debate earlier this year. “It’s really about making sure we have a process that works.”

Democrats said it could result in a defeated governor - or if Scott wins this year, turned out by term limits - having a chance to shape the court’s balance of power for years to come. Former Justice Harry Lee Anstead, a vocal opponent, called the measure “a bizarre solution searching for a non-existent problem.”

“Currently the governor may not fill an expected vacancy until the justice’s term expires. That is clear and unambiguous,” Anstead said. “There has been no problem with that appointment process at all.”

Of course, if Crist defeats Scott on Nov. 4, he would be in position to appoint the three new justices should Amendment 3 pass. It wouldn’t make any difference if Crist won a second term in 2018, but it would if he were turned out or didn’t seek re-election.

Florida law requires that all amendments get 60 percent of the vote to be added to the state constitution.

“Right now, we don’t know who the next governor is going to be,” said Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando. “This is not a political decision.”

Amendment 3 is the latest of several Republican-led attempts to shape the Supreme Court, which some in the GOP view as consistently opposing their positions in many areas going back to its 2000 presidential recount decisions.

In 2012, some Republicans led an unsuccessful effort to defeat three justices in up-or-down retention votes. Others in the GOP criticized the move as an overtly partisan assault on the judicial branch. In 2011, GOP legislative leaders pushed a bill that would have split the court into criminal and civil divisions, but that was eventually discarded.

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Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Miamicurt

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