Arizona: new plan to stack supreme court introduced and clears committee in hours; over a dozen efforts to change supreme court composition in last decade

A plan to expand the Arizona Supreme Court from 5 to 7 members was added at the last minute to a bill in the House Judiciary Committee yesterday. HB 2076 as introduced had nothing to do with the state’s supreme court. An amendment to that bill however deleted the bill’s contents and replaced it with an expansion of the Supreme Court from 5 to 7 members. It was approved on a 4-2 party-line vote.

This isn’t the first time an effort with little to no notice has been made to expand the Arizona Supreme Court. In 2013 it was the Senate Judiciary Committee that tried to advance such a proposal that was ultimately rejected when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court herself appeared in the committee and explained the Supreme Court was handling its case disposition time handily. The main sponsor countered that “I just thought that I might give the opportunity for two additional attorneys to sit on the supreme court.”

This marks over a dozen instances in the last several years of members of the legislature seeking to increase, or in some cases reduce, the size of their state supreme court/court of last resort. Details below the fold.

2007/2008

Florida: a state senator introduced SB 408 in 2007 to expand the state’s Supreme Court from 7 to 15 members. The bill’s text explicitly stated the reason for the increase was to overturn the Court’s decision in 2006 that found unconstitutional the state’s use of public money for vouchers for use in Catholic schools. When the bill became public, the senator quickly withdrew it, telling the Tallahassee Democrat “Basically, a law student came up with the idea and asked me to have it drafted so he could see how it would look, but it was never supposed to be introduced.” The senator declined to identify the law student.

Georgia: media reported legislation was considered to increase from 7 to 9 the number of seats on that state’s high court. Then-Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears urged lawmakers not to alter the court, telling them “We are doing well. We are getting it done. We have the manpower we need.” Nevertheless, SR 370 was introduced, providing that there would be a justice elected from each congressional district, effectively increasing the court from 7 to 13.

Michigan: an effort to reduce the size of the Supreme Court. The Reform Michigan Government Now proposal was ostensibly to help ease the state’s budget crises by reducing the size of the state’s legislature, Supreme Court, and Court of Appeals. However, a PowerPoint presentation left on the website of a local union explained the purpose of removing 2 of the then 7 serving Supreme Court justices was to ensure Democrat-friendly redistricting rulings after the 2010 U.S. Census (the 2 justices to be removed were Republicans). The initiative was eventually killed when the state’s Supreme Court held that the initiative failed to meet certain constitutional criteria for initiatives.

South Carolina: Amendment to the state’s constitution (SB 34) to expand their Supreme Court from 5 to 7 members elected by congressional district. Another version (SB 23) simply expanded the court from 5 to 7 without mention of congressional districts.

2009/2010

Alabama: SB 507 would have reduced their Supreme Court from 9 to 7 via attrition.

Indiana:  HJR 9 would have set the number of justices specifically at 5 (currently can be from 5 to 9), but eliminated the state’s merit selection system and replaced it with direct elections.

Iowa: After all 7 justices ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in the state, HJR 2012 would have expanded the court to 9.

Georgia: SB 429 tied more money for the courts with an expanded Supreme Court. The bill would have added a $100 judicial operations fund fee to all civil actions with the proceeds to be deposited into the general fund of the state treasury for funding salaries of judges and the operational needs of the judicial system. The increase in funding was conditional on an increase in the Supreme Court from 7 to 9 justices and the court of appeals from 12 to 15.

Nevada: SJR 9 would have permitted, but not required, the state legislature create an intermediate appellate court consisting of 3 or more judges and sets the number at least initially at 3. If the constitutional amendment was approved and if the legislature did create an intermediate appellate court, the state’s Supreme Court would be reduced from 7 to 5 justices. The proposal was sent to the voters in 2010 and failed.

South Carolina:  2007/2008 bills to expand the state’s Supreme Court from 5 to 7 were reintroduced in 2009 as SB 63 (congressional districts) and SB 55.

2011/2012

Arizona SB 1481: expand state’s Supreme Court from 5 to 7 justices. Effort failed when the state’s chief justice personally testified the expansion was not needed, that the Supreme Court was fully functioning, and was not behind in its caseload. The main sponsor countered that “I just thought that I might give the opportunity for two additional attorneys to sit on the supreme court.”

Florida HJR 7111 (as introduced): Split the state’s 7 member supreme court into two, separate 5 member civil and criminal Supreme Courts; transfer Democratically appointed justices to criminal court.

Montana:  HB 245 would have reduced the size of the state’s supreme court from 7 to 5. The sponsor was abundantly clear of his reasoning for the reduction:

All of us want tort reform, well maybe not all of us.  I surely want it and a lot of folks I talk to want it. So how do we get tort reform? I would suggest that if we took the Supreme Court from 7 down to 5, they have a higher workload, guess who becomes our ally in tort reform? The Supreme Court.

2013/2014

North Carolina: No bill number (amendment to SB 10) would have expanded the state’s supreme court from 7 to 9 members.

South Carolina: HB 3090 would expand Supreme Court from 5 to 7 members.

Washington: Anger at the Supreme Court for its rulings on K-12 education prompted several bills to reduce the Supreme Court from its current 9 members down to 7 (SB 6088) or 5 (SB 5867) discussed here.