The Florida Supreme Court
5:34 pm
Thu October 18, 2012

Debate: Will Amendment 5 Politicize Florida's Highest Court?

In 2011, the Florida Legislature set out to restructure the Florida Supreme Court.

Even though that effort failed, Republican Lawmakers did get a proposal for big changes onto this year’s ballot.

However, some say this effort could politicize and change the face of Florida’s highest court.

Will New Rules Make Florida's Highest Court Less Impartial?

If Amendment 5 passes, members of the state Senate will have to confirm any Florida Supreme Court justice the Governor appoints from now on. Right now, the governor can appoint a justice without review by any governing body.

Ron Meyer has been an attorney for more than forty years and practices constitutional and election law in Tallahassee. He has argued many cases in the Florida Supreme Court.

Meyer, as well as Democratic activists, says the amendment is part of a larger effort to remove liberals from the high court. He says Amendment Five will make the court less impartial because politicians will now have more of a say about who can become a justice.

“I think it’s going to change a lot of things,” Meyer says. “I think it is going to drive people who have constitutional issues into the federal court system whenever possible, simply because if we don’t maintain the impartial judiciary that we now have, I think we are in for some very difficult times as a society.”

How We Pick Supreme Court Judges in Florida

Bob Sanchez, the policy director at the James Madison Institute, and others, believe changes to the way Florida picks its Supreme Court justices are long overdue.

“At present, the process for obtaining Florida Supreme Court justices is kind of in the shadows,” he says. “A judicial nominating commission, principally appointed by the governor, comes up with a slate of nominees and the governor picks one, and that’s it-- and there is no review by our elected representatives. So, if at some point in the future, you had a rogue governor you could be stuck for years with justices that don’t meet the quality standards you’d like to see.”

For many years, Sanchez wrote award-winning editorials for the Miami Herald about state government and politics. He now works at the Institute in Tallahassee, which is a right-leaning think tank that has endorsed amendment 5.

The Court As A Roadblock

In 2006, Meyer won a famous case in the Florida Supreme Court that threw out an attempt by the Legislature to expand the use of school vouchers, an issue championed by conservatives.

Meyer says that the only thing standing in the way of the Legislature and Governor’s political agenda right now is the Court.

“Well certainly, if you compromise the impartiality of the court system, then what you are going to see is the Legislature’s continued ability to enact unconstitutional laws, which are not going to be struck as unconstitutional any longer,” Meyer warns. “Judges are going to be affected by legislative control. It’s just a very serious, serious problem.”

He says his job-- which is to fight laws he thinks are unconstitutional-- is going be much harder if amendment five passes.

Sanchez says it’s wrong that Amendment 5 is being portrayed as a power grab by the Legislature.

Still, the Florida Republican Party has come out in support of a campaign to remove three of the most liberal members of the court.

Sanchez says governors in Florida are currently in charge of picking judges-- and they can be just as political as the Legislature.

“Charlie Crist had an unprecedented opportunity to appoint four justices to the Florida Supreme Court,” Sanchez explains. “The first two he appointed were very conservative and the next two he appointed were liberals-- as he was trying to position himself to run for the U.S. Senate. So, governor’s can be very political, too.”

This story is part of a collaboration with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. For more information on this year's ballot measures-- including endorsements, explanations and funding-- go to Votersedge.org