Amendment 3 key to the future of Florida Supreme Court

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Amendment 3, a deceptively modest proposal on the November ballot, could actually forestall a constitutional crisis if passed, say supporters.

At the same time, opponents claim it is a partisan power grab.

Either way, the future of the Florida Supreme Court could possibly be at stake.

Amendment 3 grants an outgoing governor the ability to appoint Supreme Court and District Courts of Appeal replacements for judges who leave office at the same time as the governor.

The amendment stems from years of heated battles over the high court, seen as one of the last obstacles to enacting a full Republican agenda in Tallahassee.

Amendment 3 also comes during a contentious election between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his Democratic rival, former Gov. Charlie Crist, which could decide who gets to make the appointments in 2019.

That alone has made suspect the motives of those Republican lawmakers who approved it.

“We think that this is politicizing the way that the court works,” former GOP state Sen. Alex Villalobos told the News Service of Florida.

Villalobos frequently clashed with his party since leaving office.

Three justices at the heart of the debate make up the Court’s left-of-center majority — R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince. They are the votes that decide controversial cases, often by a 5-2 margin

For years, they have frustrated conservative GOP lawmakers and governors.

Before their next retention elections, Lewis, Pariente and Quince will reach mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges. They will be required to step aside early 2019. Simultaneously, the governor elected in November 2018 will be taking office.

The way it is now, says Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Lee, it is vague who will have the authority to appoint replacement justices — an outgoing or incoming governor.

If approved, Amendment 3 gives the power to the outgoing governor.

In an op-ed, Lee wrote: “The Senate Judiciary Committee thoroughly researched the Florida Constitution and case law surrounding the filling of court vacancies and concluded that, under the Florida Constitution and case law, either governor is arguably authorized to make these appointments.”

According to former Justice Harry Lee Anstead, Lee’s interpretation flies in the face of a Supreme Court advisory opinion from 2006 where “a vacancy exists upon the expiration of the term of the judge or justice.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.