Pro-Gerrymandering Legislators Seek Retaliation Against FL Supreme Court

The sudden charge by State House Speaker Dean Cannon and other legislators to drastically reform Florida’s Supreme Court is a poorly disguised attempt at retaliation towards the judicial branch.
March 15, 2011 - PRLog -- The sudden charge by State House Speaker Dean Cannon and other legislators to drastically reform Florida’s Supreme Court is a poorly disguised attempt at retaliation towards the judicial branch. The Florida Supreme Court’s disqualification of Amendment 7 from the 2010 ballot made it a target for legislators who seek to protect gerrymandering and derail the Fair Districts amendments, approved by over 62% of voters. The specific aim of Amendment 7 was for it to be simultaneously approved along with Amendments 5 and 6, thereby essentially overriding them. Speaker Dean Cannon personally argued the case for the counter amendment during the court hearing. Ultimately, the court decided to uphold a lower court decision to strike Amendment 7 off the ballot for being misleading to voters. Not coincidentally, Cannon is now leading the effort to break up the court into two separate civil and criminal courts while also requiring justices to obtain 60% of the vote to win merit retention, as opposed to the current simple majority.

Opposition to this retaliatory “reform” comes from the fact that a well financed minority could effectively hold judges hostage to obtaining the 60% needed for retention. The higher rate of turnover would create more flexibility for the executive branch and its allies in the legislature to appoint agenda friendly judges, regardless of which of the two parties hold the power. This would undermine the impartiality of justice and the independence of the judicial branch.

A non-partisan study by Justice at Stake, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2000-2009: Decade of Change,” reveals that over the past decade contributions in judicial elections have more than doubled. The influence of moneyed interests is entering the judicial system in much the same way it has come to completely dominate the elections of the other branches of government. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court forced a rehearing of Caperton v. Massey and recusal of West Virginia Justice Brent Benjamin for previously ruling in favor of Massey Energy Company, a major contributor to Benjamin's campaign, instead of recusing himself.

Despite such warning signs, Florida legislators are sanguine about the matter. On March 9th, the Orlando Sentinel reported that bill sponsor Rep. Bill Hager said of the 60% threshold that “a good campaign manager” would allow judges to win retention while Rep. Matt Gaetz said, “If raising money and campaigning for office is so corrosive, why is it OK for the other two branches of government to do it?” The answer is simple; because most legislators and governors do not take a stand in support of representative democracy. Clearly, many legislators in the functioning two-party plutocracy feel that current campaign finance conditions are not an obstacle to representative democracy, despite the dominant role of fundraising and money in campaigns and in office. As such, they do not feel that subjecting the judicial branch to the same special interest pressures as the legislative and executive branches would undermine the quality of justice. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warns that the exponential rise of money in judicial elections brings about a “crisis of confidence” and the perception of “justice for sale”.

Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, removing regulations on spending by moneyed special interests on ads in support of or against candidates, this retaliatory “reform” of Florida’s Supreme Court will further the effects of plutocracy at the expense of impartial justice. The passive, open acceptance and attempted rationalization of such measures by legislators highlights the unrepresentative nature of the existing system and the continuing need for electoral reform.

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The Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform is a non-partisan coalition of groups and individuals recognizing the need for electoral reforms to enrich and expand democracy in our state and its localities. In addition to advocacy, we seek to provide education on electoral reform and the policy solutions necessary to realize it. We are working towards a vibrant democracy with accessibility for the average person, a competitive political environment, and pluralism in policy and decision making. For more information please visit http://www.floridaelectoralreform.org or e-mail info@floridaelectoralreform.org.
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