Keep partisan revenge out of state constitution —An Editorial
Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
Floridians need to stay informed on judiciary amendment
Florida voters had to be aware of a sneaky constitutional amendment this year. They may have to be even more informed and focused in 2018.
The 2016 subterfuge was an amendment related to solar energy that advertised itself as consumer-friendly. In fact, Florida’s investor-owned utilities financed the amendment with $26 million in hopes of securing a monopoly on solar power. Voters, however, wised up. The amendment fell far short of the 60 percent needed for approval.
For 2018, the looming danger is amendments that seek to undermine Florida’s independent judiciary. This issue may not sound as sexy as energy from the sun, but it’s far more important.
Florida is the only state in which an appointed body — the Constitution Revision Commission — can put amendments on the ballot without court review. The 37-member commission meets every 20 years, and the next iteration starts in 2017 to decide which amendments — if any — go on the 2018 ballot.
The governor gets 15 appointments, including the chairman. The House speaker and Senate president get nine, the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court gets three and the attorney general is automatically a member. When Florida created the commission in 1965, the intent was to provide regular review of the new state constitution — approved in 1968 — to propose bipartisan updates. For House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, however, his priority is partisan revenge.
Two weeks ago, Corcoran addressed the business group Associated Industries of Florida. Corcoran told AIF that his appointees to the Constitution Revision Commission must favor term limits for Florida Supreme Court justices, who now can serve until age 70, like all of Florida’s jurists. In addition, Corcoran said his “litmus test” is that commission members be “conservative.”
Though he claims that conservatives “get the separation of powers,” Corcoran is not acting like such a conservative. He wants to make the Florida Supreme Court subservient to the Legislature because he opposes the court’s rulings on, to name a few, school vouchers, workers compensation insurance and, especially, redistricting.
In 2010, voters approved constitutional amendments that prohibited the Legislature from drawing gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts to favor parties and incumbents. Last year, the groups that sponsored the amendments successfully challenged the congressional and state Senate maps the Republican-controlled Legislature drew in 2012.
Both amendments got nearly 63 percent of the vote. Evidence showed that, despite promises of transparency, Republican leaders had worked in secret with party operatives to draw maps that favored the GOP. The legal challenge ensured that the amendments would work as voters intended.
Corcoran now wants the Constitutional Revision Commission to go after “bad decisions” — translation: his side lost — by the Florida Supreme Court. He wants proposals to neuter the Fair Districts Amendments and impose 12-year-term limits on Supreme Court justices.
Republicans earlier targeted the justices after the court in 2010 struck some misleading amendments from the ballot. In 2011, the House proposed an amendment that would have split the seven-member Supreme Court into a pair of five-member divisions — criminal and civilian.
Conveniently, the Democratic-appointed justices would have gone into the criminal division. Judges whom the GOP liked would have gone into the civil division, which would have reviewed constitutional amendments. Gov. Rick Scott would have appointed three new justices. It was court-packing. Fortunately, the Senate blocked it.
Even a weakened version of the amendment got less than 40 percent the next year. Also in 2012, Corcoran tried to finance a campaign to defeat three justices who were up for merit retention. He called them “the enemy of the free markets.” All kept their jobs. One is Jorge Labarga, the current chief justice who will make those three appointments to the Constitution Revision Commission.
Corcoran alone would be dangerous enough, but Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also wants the commission to review the Fair Districts Amendments. Scott’s statements show that he prefers the judiciary to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the executive and judicial branches — if Republicans control them.
In 1998, the Constitution Revision Commission property focused its work on changes intended to make state government work better. The most important amendment shrunk the Florida Cabinet by making the education and insurance commissioners appointed, not elected. In 1978, voters rejected all eight of the commission’s amendments, but most — such as the right to privacy — became law later.
It takes 22 votes to get an amendment on the ballot. We don’t know what the commission will produce. Based on the early comments, however, we know that there’s reason for Floridians to start worrying and stay informed.