Constitutional amendment on judicial appointments ready for Senate floor

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In a controversial amendment passed on Thursday, Florida governors on the way out of office could make key appointments to the state Supreme Court.

With a 10-5 vote, the Senate Rules Committee approved SJR 1188, which is now on the way to the full Senate floor. Republicans say the idea avoids a possible showdown over executive powers while Democrats contend the action moves in the wrong direction, according to Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

If voters approve the amendment in November, it could affect the ideological balance of the Court, where a number of Justices will reach the mandatory retirement age prior to expiration of their terms in 2019. That means the winner of the 2014 governor’s race — incumbent GOP gov. Rick Scott or the winner of the Democratic primary, either former Gov. Charlie Crist or former Sen. Nan Rich — will have the right to appoint Supreme Court justices.

A left-leaning court could derail the efforts of a Republican-led executive or legislative branch.

At issue are the culmination of the judge’s terms, which coincide with the end of the governor’s term — leaving a question n of whether the outgoing or incoming governor has the right to make appointments.

Even critics see the potential for problems, since there is an ambiguity in the Constitution as to who has that right.

Republican Sen. Tom Lee, a sponsor of the amendment, touched on the subject of “massive litigation” and “a cloud hanging over the Florida Supreme Court” if the situation is not addressed this session.

Lee insists politics are not the reason for the amendment, but did tell Larrabee that lawmakers will sure to look at the measure through the prism of the November election.

“But imagine where we will be in 2016, which will be our next opportunity to fix this, when we know exactly who the governor will be at that time,” Lee said. “Imagine where we will be politically if we don’t do this now.”

Democrats argue that the amendment “disenfranchises” voters by allowing a recently defeated governor to make appointments to the Supreme Court justices.

“We should do something,” Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith told the News Service. “I’d just like us to move forward instead of backwards.”

If passed by the legislature, the amendment needs approval by 60 percent  of voters in the November vote before it can take action.

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.