Florida Senate likely to vote tomorrow on splitting state’s supreme court. If approved, when will it get on the ballot? Could only Republicans wind up voting on it?

All indications are SJR 2084, the Senate version of HJR 7111, which would split the Florida Supreme Court into civil and criminal divisions is set for a vote tomorrow, having been placed on the special order calendar along with SB 2170, the bill to remove the state bar’s role in judicial nominating commissions.

Under Article XI, Section 5 of the state’s constitution, constitutional amendments are to go on the ballot “at the next general election held more than ninety days after the joint resolution…is filed with the custodian of state records.” However, the same provision allows for a quicker election for a single constitutional amendment via a special election if agreed to by three-fourths of each house (the 90 day rule still applies, however). That would mean 90 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate. An earlier Democratic effort in the House to amend HJR 7111 to require it be on the 2012 general election ballot was rejected on party lines.

Holding a special election, or piggy-backing onto a “Presidential Preference” election, is not unheard of. In 2008, Amendment One was put on the ballot allowing people who move to keep the annual cap of 3 percent on increases in assessed home values for property taxes on their new home. Before it was Amendment One, it was SJR 4 of Special Session 2007B. HB 5 of the same Special Session 2007B authorized the special election to occur on January 29, the Presidential Preference election for 2008. The underlying SJR 4B passed the House 74-43 and the Senate 25-12. However, on the question of whether SJR 4B should get onto the January 2008 ballot (i.e. HB 5B), the vote was unanimous in both the House and Senate.

The 2012 Presidential Preference election is January 31, 2012. In the event President Obama does not have a primary challenger, the probability is there would be no Democratic race (a similar circumstance occurred in 2004 for Republicans and 1996 for Democrats). The result could mean an exceptionally low turnout for Democratic voters casting a ballot that so far has been an entirely GOP proposition (all 39 House Dems present voted against HJR 7111 on final passage, no Republicans voted against).

House and Senate Republicans, while holding substantial majorities in each chamber, do not have the 75% needed to get HJR 7111 or SJR 2084 onto that 2010 Presidential Preference ballot. Assuming unanimity among the GOP, they would need at least 10 Democrats in the House and 2 in the Senate to vote in favor of a January 2012 race.

Regardless of which race, the proposal would still face a unique hurdle of 60% for passage thanks to a 2006 constitutional amendment (brought about via the legislature) that raised the bar on all constitutional amendments.

Of course, all this is moot if the bill fails to clear the Senate tomorrow or sometime before the legislature adjourns May 6.

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