Florida House Judiciary Committee to take up nine bills that would reshape the state’s judicial branch

I’ve noted several bills that have been pressed by Florida’s House Speaker and their prior hearing dates, including March 17 (see here), along with delays on the Senate side on their versions (see here). Tomorrow, April 7 may prove a fateful day for such efforts. Among the bills on the committee’s agenda:

HJR 1097, a constitutional amendment that ends the state’s merit selection system for future Supreme Court and district courts of appeals judges. Instead, those seeking initial terms would be appointed by the governor with senate confirmation. HJR 1097 would, however keep retention elections for subsequent terms. This had previously been approved by the Civil Justice Subcommittee on March 17.

HJR 7025, a constitutional amendment that repeals the Supreme Court’s power, and that of any court, to adopt rules for the practice and procedure. Instead, the Supreme Court could recommend such rules to the legislature, which would have the power to adopt, amend, or reject any proposed or existing rule by law.

HB 7027 is a bill with statutory changes related to HJR 7025. In addition to specifying how the supreme court’s recommendations to the legislature would be handled, it would also create a judicial conference made up of the chief justice, the chief judge of each district court of appeal, and circuit judges and gives it broad oversight over the state’s judiciary.

HJR 7037, a constitutional amendment that provides all records, materials, & proceedings related to complaints & investigations of Judicial Qualifications Commission not otherwise exempt from disclosure are public upon filing of formal charges against judge or upon determination by commission or investigative panel that formal charges will not be filed. This is similar, but not identical, to SJR 1704 approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 4.

HJR 7039, a constitutional amendment that requires justices or judges receive at least 60% of vote to be retained in office starting with 2012 election.

HB 7101, a statutory change that replaces entirely the state’s existing judicial nominating commissions. New commissions would be selected entirely by the governor with no input from the state bar (currently, bar sends three names for each vacancy for the governor to select from). The bill sets terms of the commission members concurrent with the governor and retains provisions that commission members selection should “ensure that, to the extent possible, the membership of the commission reflects the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, as well as the geographic distribution” of the population and that the Executive Office of the Governor shall provide all administrative support for each judicial nominating commission.

HJR 7111 a constitutional amendment that would rename the existing Supreme Court the Supreme Court of Civil Appeals and create a second court of last resort (a Supreme Court of Criminal Appeals). Both courts would be made up of five justices selected using the existing merit selection system, each with its own judicial nominating commission. The three most senior justices of the existing Supreme Court would transfer to the new Supreme Court of Criminal Appeal and the existing Supreme Court’s pending caseload divided.

The constitutional amendment specifies the two courts “are to be separate courts of last resort”, this in contrast to the original reports that the proposal would simply expand the existing supreme court into two panels of five. The constitutional amendment would provide the chief justices of these courts would be named by the governor subject to senate confirmation (the current chief justice is chosen by the court itself). While both courts (acting jointly) would still be able to recommend increases in the number of trial judges, rule-making powers of the court(s) would be curtailed by a new provision that “Administration of the court system shall be as provided in general law.” Moreover, the Supreme Court of Criminal Appeals would hear complaints from the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission.

HB 7119, repeals statutory provisions relating to requirement that district court sit in three judge panels & have majority for decision & requirement that clerk of district court perform duties prescribed by rule of court. This had been noticed for hearing and action previously on March 24 and March 30, but the bill was never taken up for consideration.

HB 7199 would change numerous statutes putting HJR 7111 into effect.

Is the fourth time a charm? Nevada tries yet again to create an intermediate appellate court

Nevada is one of only 10 states + DC without an intermediate appellate court. Like many other states, the state’s constitutional article related to the judiciary locks the state into a supreme court, district courts, justice of the peace courts, and (if the legislature approves, which it has), municipal courts. In 1980 and 1992 voters rejected efforts to amend the constitution to allow, but not require, the legislature to create an intermediate appellate. A third attempt in 2010 (Question 2) was rejected 47/53%.

Last week, a new effort at creating an intermediate appellate court was introduced in the state’s Assembly (AJR 7) and Senate (SJR 14). Unlike the 2010 version which allowed the legislature to create an intermediate appellate court (called the “court of appeals”) these amendments would directly create the court. The court would have civil and criminal jurisdiction, but the Supreme Court also “shall fix by rule the jurisdiction of the court of appeals.” Interestingly, while the Supreme Court can temporarily “assign down” a court of appeals judge to sit as a supplemental district court judge, temporarily elevations to the court of appeals due to disability or disqualification would be made by the governor. While initially a three-member court, the amendments would allow for expansion by the legislature.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding held hearings today and a work session on April 7 on its version, while the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee will hold hearings on April 5.

FL: Bills to split supreme court and change judicial elections up for hearing on March 17

Tomorrow’s (March 17) House Judiciary Committee, Civil Justice Subcommittee promises to be very active with respect to the state’s judicial structure and election. A podcast of the hearing will be available here and video here.

On the agenda already are:

HJR 1097, a constitutional amendment that ends the state’s merit selection system for future supreme court and district courts of appeals judges. Instead, those seeking initial terms would be appointed by the governor with senate confirmation. HJR 1097 would, however keep retention elections for subsequent terms.

PCB CVJS 11-06, a constitutional amendment that would rename the existing supreme court the Supreme Court of Civil Appeals and create a second court of last resort (a Supreme Court of Criminal Appeals). Both courts would be made up of five justices selected using the existing merit selection system, each with its own judicial nominating commission. The three most senior justices of the existing supreme court would transfer to the new Supreme Court of Criminal Appeal and the existing supreme court’s pending caseload divided.

The constitutional amendment specifies the two courts “are to be separate courts of last resort”, this in contrast to the original reports that the proposal would simply expand the existing supreme court into two panels of five. The constitutional amendment would provide the chief justices of these courts would be named by the governor subject to senate confirmation (the current chief justice is chosen by the court itself). While both courts (acting jointly) would still be able to recommend increases in the number of trial judges, rule-making powers of the court(s) would be curtailed by a new provision that “Administration of the court system shall be as provided in general law.” Moreover, the Supreme Court of Criminal Appeals would hear complaints from the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission.

PCB CVJS 11-07 would change numerous statutes putting CVJS 11-06 into effect.

PCB CVJS 11-08 would replace the state’s existing judicial nominating commissions. The new commissions would be selected entirely by the governor with no input from the state bar (currently, bar sends three names for each vacancy for the governor to select from). The terms of the commission members would be concurrent with the governor, meaning a new governor would be able to pick all new commissions (currently, serve for 4 years). The bill does retain provisions that commission members selection should “ensure that, to the extent possible, the membership of the commission reflects the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, as well as the geographic distribution” of the population and that the Executive Office of the Governor shall provide all administrative support for each judicial nominating commission.

Bill to consolidate New Hampshire’s trial courts advances

Last year’s big trial court consolidation effort was Vermont’s HB 470 which resulted in the state’s Probate, Family, and District courts being absorbed into the state’s Superior Court (the state’s Judicial Bureau, which handles minor violations, remains as a separate court).

New Hampshire is on its way to a similar consolidation with HB 609 which would consolidate the state’s District, Probate, and Judicial Branch Family Division into a newly created limited jurisdiction court called the Circuit Court. The state’s Superior Court would remain a general jurisdiction court. Like the Vermont consolidation, the older courts would be converted to divisions of a court rather than simply eliminated outright.

HB 609 was approved with committee amendment by the House Judiciary Committee on a 16-0 vote on March 10. The committee will hold a second vote to approve the amendment on March 15 before sending it to the full House.

FL House Speaker wants to expand Supreme Court: Court packing plan, or merely a “reform”?

News reports coming out of Florida indicate there is an attempt underway to expand the state’s supreme court. House Speaker Dean Cannon announced earlier today he wants to increase the size of the Florida Supreme Court from seven to 10 members and divide the 10 member court into two, 5 -member panels (one civil, one criminal). Cannon denies this is a court packing effort, claiming instead he wants to “reform” the court.

The only two states that even approximate this proposal are Oklahoma and Texas, however these two states have entirely separate courts to handle civil (Supreme Court) and criminal (Court of Criminal Appeals) cases.

The Tallahassee Democrat noted that Speaker Cannon was irate last year when the state’s Supreme Court struck from the ballot several legislatively introduced initiatives. In his first speech as Speaker-designate in November 2010, Cannon went out of his way to attack the court’s decisions.

This wouldn’t be the first time a Florida Supreme Court decision prompted a legislative effort to increase the size of the court. In 2007, Florida state senator Bill Posey 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. (Bush v. Holmes, 919 So.2d 392 (Fla. 2006)) When SB 408 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.

For a 2010 review of efforts to tinker with the size of the state supreme courts, read Issue 4:14 of Gavel to Gavel here. For the recent effort to increase the Arizona Supreme Court (without asking or talking with the state’s Chief Justice first), read this blog post.

Update: 3/7/11 @ 3:23 According to a Twitter feed coming out of the press conference where Cannon made these announcements, Senate President Mike Haridopolos says House Speaker Cannon idea on FL Supreme Court will be given fair consideration. (h/t Gary Fineout)

AZ: Chief justice not asked about plan to expand state’s supreme court

Normally, either through constitutional provision, statutory requirement, or courtesy, legislative efforts to change the number of judges or justices in a state must receive some degree of input from the state’s supreme court, judicial council, or chief justice. A recent effort (SB 1481 of 2011) in Arizona to expand the state’s supreme court from 5 to 7 members was therefore curious in that it failed to include the chief justice in the development.

Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch, after being initially misidentified as being only a member of the state’s judicial council and not the state’s chief justice, (video here, four minutes from 1:06:30-1:10:30) said:

Actually I am the chief justice of the Supreme Court and I had hoped I was signed in in that capacity. And in that capacity, I was surprised by the bill and surprised to be surprised by the bill. Here’s a bill that proposes to change my court and no one asked me about it. Had I been asked, here’s what I might have said…

She noted that, perhaps unique among all governmental entities, the Arizona Supreme Court was current with its workload and that it would cost $1 million per year for the additional two justices.

The author later explained his bill: “I just thought that I might give the opportunity for two additional attorneys to sit on the supreme court.” The bill was ultimately rejected by the committee, but on a 3-4 vote.

This is the second effort to change the composition of state supreme courts this year. Montana considered reducing the size of its supreme court to force it into tort reform.

Today’s a big day for hearings on bills affecting the judiciary

Several bills affecting the state courts are getting committee hearings today, (see update below) including:

Montana HB 332 (House Judiciary committee audio will be here) would permit jury nullification and require judges inform jurors they may judge both the facts and the law in the case> Judges would be required to provide jurors  state and federal constitutions and any statute books they request. In criminal cases, the judge would be required to inform jurors they may vote their conscience to acquit an accused in spite of technical guilt. Finally, the bill defines “obstruction” of these provisions as reversible error.

Meanwhile, Indiana’s Senate Judiciary committee (live streaming video here) will be considering two bills of particular note. SB 212 would move the state closer to a restructured system of consolidated trial courts. It provides that all circuit courts, superior courts, and probate courts have: (1) original and concurrent jurisdiction in all civil cases and in all criminal cases; (2) de novo appellate jurisdiction of appeals from city and town courts; and (3) in Marion County, de novo appellate jurisdiction of appeals from township small claims courts. The bill would also repeal authorization for the establishment and operation of county courts (since January 1, 2009, no county court exists in Indiana.).Also up for debate is SB 463 which would repeal all provisions that establish a mandatory retirement age for superior court and county court judges.

Update 2/2/11 @ 8:44 Eastern: The massive snow storm affecting most of the country has shut down the Indiana Legislature Tuesday and Wednesday. According to the legislature’s website, Senate hearings may be conducted Thursday.