FL: ConAmend to strip S.C. of rule making power on death penalty cases withdrawn

The Florida Supreme Court’s power to set rules of practice and procedure are among the broadest in the nation, as well as among the hardest to be overridden by the legislature. The Judiciary Article of the state constitution holds:

The supreme court shall adopt rules for the practice and procedure in all courts including the time for seeking appellate review, the administrative supervision of all courts, the transfer to the court having jurisdiction of any proceeding when the jurisdiction of another court has been improvidently invoked, and a requirement that no cause shall be dismissed because an improper remedy has been sought…Rules of court may be repealed by general law enacted by two-thirds vote of the membership of each house of the legislature.

Two newly elected members of Florida’s House, however, attempted to transfer the rule making power as to death penalty cases directly to the legislature. HJR 73 of 2011 (as filed on December 16, 2010) would have added a section to the Legislative Article that read:

Notwithstanding any other provision of this constitution, the Legislature by general law shall adopt rules governing time limits, procedures, and processes relating to all death penalty cases and related proceedings in all courts.

The state bar’s Board of Governors on December 10 adopted a legislative position against any effort to alter the Supreme Court’s rule making power:

Opposes amendment of Article V, Section 2(a) of the Florida Constitution that would alter the Supreme Court’s authority to adopt rules for practice and procedure in all courts, or that would change the manner by which such rules may be repealed by the Legislature.

On December 30, precisely two weeks after the Constitutional Amendment was proposed, it was withdrawn by its sponsors.

FL: Increasing requirements to be a trial court judge

There have been numerous efforts to try and avoid the excesses of judicial elections, but one Florida House member has proposed a unique solution. In 2010, Broward County faced an “unwieldy primary election for judges [with] 42 candidates including 15 incumbents in 20 races”. (h/t Florida Bar News) This prompted state Sen. Jeremy Ring to introduce SB 140, a constitutional amendment that increases the number of years a person must be a member of the Florida bar before being eligible for a trial court judgeship. Circuit and county court judges would need to have 10 years as an attorney (currently 5 years for circuit, and bar admission only for county), the same qualifications needed as with the state’s appellate courts. An identical bill (HB 47) was also introduced in the House.

FL: Mandatory e-filing in criminal cases

Earlier in 2010, Gavel to Gavel looked at efforts by state legislatures to mandate more electronic filing of court documents. Much of the focus was on civil cases, however Florida’s Senate is considering a plan to press for criminal case e-filing. SB 170 of 2011 would require prosecutors and public defenders to e-file documents with the clerk of court and report back on March 1, 2012 on the implementation of the program to the legislature.

Cross-posted at Court Technology Bulletin blog

FL: Retired judges/justices recall to service program

We have this submission from Cristina Alonso, an attorney with Carlton Fields and co-chair of the NCSC Young Lawyers committee.

Florida is considering bringing judges out of retirement to help the courts. HB 13 and SB 130 permit the chief judge of a judicial circuit, subject to approval by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to establish a program for retired justices or judges to preside over civil cases & trials or to hear motions upon written request of one or more parties. The bills further provide for compensation of such justices or judges to be paid by the parties by deposit into the Operating Trust Fund of the state courts system.

A similar bill  (HB 369 of 2009) was passed by the House 114-0 last year, but was not taken up in the Senate.

This year’s House version was approved by the chamber’s Civil Justice and Courts Policy Committee on February 16. The Senate version was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 9.

More push-pull legislation on court funding

Readers may recall the Florida House bills proposed several weeks ago that would provide the courts guaranteed funding, but only if judicial immunity and a list of other changes made to the way courts and judges operate. Now the Senate has introduced identical bills (SB 2636 and SB 2640).

Georgia, meanwhile, is also considering tying additional funding to changes in court structure. SB 429 would add 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. This additional funding comes, however, only if the Supreme Court is increased from 7 to 9 justices and the Court of Appeals from 12 to 15. Unlike in most states where a change to the number of Supreme Court justices would require a constitutional amendment,Article VI Section VI of Georgia’s Constitution allows the legislature to set the number so long as it is below 9 (interestingly, there appears to be no minimum). Gavel to Gavel readers may recall a similar effort to expand the Supreme Court in 2007. This, from Gavel to Gavel’s first edition

Georgia media reports legislation may be considered to increase from 7 to 9 the number of seats on that state’s high court. 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.”

Changes to the appellate courts are rare, especially courts of last resort. Since 1990, only 2 states have had such changes. Nevada’s Supreme Court grew from 5 to 7 members in 1999 (AB 343 of 1997). In that same year, Iowa’s Supreme Court shrank from 9 to 7 as 3 judges were added to the state’s Court of Appeals (HF 2471 of 1998).

FL: Courts and foreclosures

Gavel to Gavel: The Blog is designed to be more expansive, in terms of both content and contributors, than the original e-publication. Writers will be key contributors on the front lines of legislation and the courts.

This week marks the first such contribution from Cristina Alonso, an attorney with Carlton Fields and co-chair of the NCSC Young Lawyers committee.

Florida’s legislature is not yet in session, but already has several bills to contend with foreclosures and the courts. SB 1778 and HB 75 provide procedural requirements and limitations for plaintiffs, defendants, and courts in certain foreclosure actions, including a requirement for court-ordered mediation. The bills would require that the Florida Supreme Court create “the form and content notices, affidavits, certificates, liens, and other forms required” and require Circuit Clerks to “provide all forms, together with instructions in English and Spanish, to a pro se defendant seeking assistance in any foreclosure action. Such forms shall be provided at no cost to the defendant.”  Both bills are currently pending in various committees of both chambers.

Florida’s Push-Pull Legislation

The budget crises in the United States are a, if not the, central focus for all state judiciaries in this legislative session. Over the years, there have been several suggested solutions to address the problem of how to fund the third branch. The Conference of Chief Justices, for example, passed a resolution in 1973, amid the mid-1970s recession, that  “This conference supports the financing of [the courts] by an automatic  constitutional appropriation of a percentage of the General Fund Budget of each state.” (73-A-2)

Into this comes Florida’s HB 735 and HB 737.

HB 737 creates a Fiscal Stability Trust Fund to be administered by the Supreme Court and into which would be placed an automatic, guaranteed 1 percent of the state’s General Revenue Fund. The bill also declares “the judicial branch of state government shall be held harmless in years of fiscal deficits in the state as a matter of public safety” and permits revenues in the Fiscal Stability Trust Fund to remain in the fund at the end of every fiscal year.

HB 737 requires passage of HB 735  “or similar legislation”. HB 735 requires a retroactive  elimination of judicial immunity in a variety of specified contexts dealing with court proceedings.  Additionally, it expands the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) and requires JQC investigation panels include at least 5 “common citizen electors” as a staff committee, none of whom may be “officers of the court” and who must prepare a separate report on the investigation that is to be made publicly available. Both the state courts system in general, and the JQC in particular, would be subject to an immediate audit by the state’s Auditor General and the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability conduct full audit review of commission, a review to be repeated every two years.

Additionally, HB 735 requires the Supreme Court create a plan “promoting civics for residents of this state, together with education concerning the judicial branch in order to develop trust and confidence in the state’s judicial system.” It also creates unified family courts, teen courts, drug courts and mental health courts in each judicial circuit.

The Florida legislature is due to come into full session March 2.