Dems decry 'court stacking' motives in JNC bill

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House committee divided along party lines on Wednesday approved a bill that would give the governor more power to change the makeup of the panel that sends him names of candidates for open judgeships, reports David Royse of the News Service of Florida.

Under Florida law, when the governor chooses a judge to fill a vacancy on the circuit or county bench, one of the district courts of appeal or the Supreme Court, he chooses from a list sent to him by a judicial nominating commission. 

Each JNC has nine members, all of whom are chosen by the governor, though four of them have to come from a list of candidates provided by the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar. The members of the JNC serve four year terms, and can typically only be removed for cause. 

A bill put forth Wednesday by the House Civil Justice Committee, and then approved by the Republican-run panel on a party line vote, would change that to provide that the five members of the JNC not selected from the Bar list would serve “at the pleasure of the governor.”

Democrats on the committee said it was a political power grab that would allow the governor – a Republican for many years – to choose the people who choose judicial candidates, allowing a governor to more easily “stack” the courts. 

“The governor not only gets to pick who the judges are, he gets to pick who gives him the list,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami. “I think that upsets the balance of power here. I think we need to keep an independent judiciary.” 

Democrats have complained for more than a decade about efforts by legislative Republicans to give the governor – or lawmakers – more ability to shape the judiciary, from moves during Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration giving the governor more say on the JNCs to a bill a couple of years ago that would have required Senate approval for Supreme Court nominees.

Republicans, however, said the measure would make the judges more attune to the wishes of the people. 

The governor would more frequently get to select a majority of the panel that vets judges, “and he’s an elected official held accountable to the voting public,” said Rep. Charlie Stone, R-Ocala.

But Robert Cole, president of the Florida Board of Trial Advocates, said the public doesn’t actually want more control over the judiciary, but wants judges to remain independent from political influence. He pointed to the failure of a proposed constitutional amendment to give lawmakers more authority over the judiciary, including Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices. 

“The people of Florida do not have a taste for that type of politicization of the process,” said Cole. 

The bill would also do away with a separate statewide nominating commission for judges of compensation claims, which sit on workers compensation claims cases. The bill would instead have those judges appointed by the governor from a list of three people nominated by the JNC for the First District Court of Appeal.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.