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Joe Henderson: Separation of powers there to keep legislators from running amok

in Statewide by

Politicians have long been outraged – OUTRAGED, I tell you – about so-called “activist judges” who make them follow that pesky thing known as the law.

I guess it’s logical, therefore, for frustrated lawmakers to try and beat judges at their own game.

FloridaPolitics.com reported that State Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Republican from Venice, filed two bills to address this issue. If passed, voters would be asked to approve a constitutional amendment to basically allow the state to thumb its collective nose if a judge just says no.

If enacted, it would allow the Legislature to over-ride rulings by a two-thirds vote within five years of the ruling.

Interesting gambit.

The bills by Gonzalez take aim at both state and federal judges who, in the words of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, are the best example “of people putting power above principle …”

“We need judges who respect the Constitution and the separation of powers; who will reject the temptation to turn themselves into some unelected, super-legislature,” Corcoran said during a speech at his swearing-in ceremony.

“The problem with holding the same office for, in essence, life, is you start to think that the office is far, far, far less important than the person in it — which is why we need 12-year term limits on judges, so we can have a healthy judicial branch.”

Well, hold that thought for a moment, Mr. Speaker.

The separation of powers Corcoran embraces was never designed to be a judicial rubber stamp for lawmakers. It’s in there so judges can keep lawmakers from running amok – kind of the way Florida has done with its gerrymandered congressional boundaries and state House and Senate districts.

That was done against the will of voters, by the way. They approved separate constitutional amendments in 2010 that ordered districts “may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.”

And then, Republicans drew new districts that favored, well, Republicans. There was lawsuit by the League of Women Voters, which led to a ruling by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis that the boundaries of two districts broke the law.

To me, that is the textbook example of the separation of powers.

The same was true when the state Supreme Court ruled Florida’s death penalty law was unconstitutional. Note, the court didn’t say capital punishment itself was unconstitutional – only that the law saying only 10 of 12 jurors had to vote for death didn’t meet the legal standard.

That may be annoying to prosecutors and lawmakers who like to brag they’re tough on crime, but forcing them to work harder before sentencing a murderer to death is not unconstitutional.

Yes, judges sometimes make wacky rulings. Legislators also sometimes propose wacky bills that can become law.

When that happens, the only recourse is in the courts. Crying foul about “activist judges” who don’t see it their way is a weak argument from lawmakers who probably were trying to pull a fast one.

Even if these bills pass through the Legislature and makes their way to the governor’s desk for his signature though, opponents shouldn’t worry too much. They can probably get them overturned by appealing to one of those activist judges.

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Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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