Florida Senate Judiciary Committee approves several bills that would change judicial discipline, judicial rulemaking

The Florida Senate Judiciary Committee approved several bills yesterday that could reshape the state’s judiciary. What may prove more notable in the long run, however, are the bills that were not taken up or that were temporarily shelved.

Judicial Discipline

Article V, Section 12 of the Florida constitution spells out in great detail the process of judicial discipline via the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission. Specifically, Paragraph 4 provides

Until formal charges against a justice or judge are filed by the investigative panel with the clerk of the supreme court of Florida all proceedings by or before the commission shall be confidential; provided, however, upon a finding of probable cause and the filing by the investigative panel with said clerk of such formal charges against a justice or judge such charges and all further proceedings before the commission shall be public.

SJR 1704 of 2011, approved on a 6-1 vote yesterday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would substantially revise Paragraph 4. Complaints against judges would still be made public when the investigative panel files formal charges, but such complaints would also be made public after 1) a determination that formal charges will not be filed, or 2) the entry of a stipulation or other settlement agreement before the investigative panel determines whether to file formal charges. Moreover, the commission would be required to notify the Speaker of the Florida House of all complaints received or initiated, all investigations conducted, and all complaints dismissed, settled, or otherwise concluded.

Judicial Rulemaking

The same committee approved on a 5-2 vote a constitutional amendment to make it easier for the legislature to override the rules of practice and procedure set by the state’s Supreme Court. The current constitutional provisions provide “Rules of court may be repealed by general law enacted by two-thirds vote of the membership of each house of the legislature.” SJR 2084 would drop the threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths (67% vs. 60%) and prohibit the supreme court from readopting the rule for three years after repeal.

Bills not taken up may be telling

Other bills related to judicial elections and other efforts to alter the state’s judiciary were not taken up. According to the Orlando Sentinel, senators of both parties are expressing hesitation over proposals made by Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon that would give the executive and legislative branches more power over the judiciary in general and the supreme court in particular (efforts described here and here), including a proposal to allow the Attorney General to select members of the state’s judicial nominating commissions currently chosen by the state’s bar (SPB 7222).