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Former ABA head warns of possible danger to judiciary from constitutional panel

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The upcoming Constitution Revision Commission will likely take on the state’s judicial branch, and “the focus will not be on strengthening it,” the former president of the American Bar Association said Tuesday.

Rather, retired Florida lawyer Martha Barnett, who was a Holland & Knight senior partner, said she expects an effort to “restrict, narrow and weaken the judicial branch.”

“And if that happens, it is to the peril of the life and liberty of the people of this state,” she said during a panel discussion at The Associated Press’ annual Legislative Session planning meeting.

Barnett was a member of the 1997-1998 Constitution Revision Commission, appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Florida is unique among states in that its constitution allows for a panel to meet every 20 years, “examine the constitution, hold public hearings and … file its proposal, if any, of a revision of this constitution or any part of it.”

The next commission is expected to be formed in the days before the start of the 2017 Legislative Session on March 7. As governor, Rick Scott will choose 15 of the 37 commissioners, and he also selects its chairperson.

The heads of the two legislative chambers get nine picks each, and the Republican-controlled House has been particularly irritated by the courts over the last few years, especially when they overturn favored policy initiatives. 

Most recently, the House was getting ready to challenge Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga’s decision to let Justice James E.C. Perry keep working on pending cases even after his Dec. 30 retirement. Labarga just ended Perry’s “senior” status, however, mooting the issue.

Hopefully, Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran won’t use his picks to just place loyalists on the panel, said Sandy D’Alemberte, a Florida legal legend who was president of Florida State University and chaired the 1977-78 commission.

That will be like “issuing a death warrant to the commission process,” D’Alemberte said. “It’s not going to succeed.”

Carol Weissert, director of the LeRoy Collins Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank at FSU, explained that each commission sets its own rules, including a schedule of public hearings around the state.

Any changes the commission proposes would be in the form of constitutional amendments, which would have to be approved by 60 percent of voters on a statewide ballot.

Barnett ended on a positive note, noting that once people are on the commission, they don’t serve at the pleasure of the official who picked them.

“You are an independent voice … because of that, most rise to the occasion,” she said.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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