Right-Wing Florida Legislature Seeks to Weaken Independent Judiciary

The message reproduced below was written by Doug Eaton, current President of the Miami-Dade Justice Assocation, and published in the organization’s Spring 2011 newsletter. It is extremely well-written and addresses an issue of utmost importance to the residents of Florida. I agree wholeheartedly with the opinions expressed by Mr. Eaton.
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President’s Message

Each spring, our elected leaders gather in Tallahassee for two months, ostensibly to serve the citizens of this state. Each year, the legislature instead launches another assault against the right of access to the court. And each year, the rights of the citizens of this state are eroded, sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically. This session, however, the assault has landed squarely in the latter category. The Speaker of the House, Dean Cannon, has proposed numerous bills each designed to limit the power of and undermine the independence of the Judiciary. The motivating belief behind each of Cannon’s proposed “reforms” is that the Judiciary is not a co-equal branch of government and should not be in the business of questioning the legality of the actions of the legislature. If any of Cannon’s measures pass, they will have an immediate and deleterious effect on the court’s ability to act as the last refuge for the powerless from the powerful. They will undermine the Judiciary’s ability to provide protection for the minority from the tyranny of majority. Our Court system, unfortunately, has become the sole remaining repository for the founding idea of our country, namely that we are a country of laws, not men, and certainly not money.

When our elected leaders have been reluctant to act to correct injustice, our Courts have always provided an avenue to do so. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Brown v. Board of Education, ending the U.S. policy of racial segregation in schools, fully seven years before the U.S. legislature would pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Eight years later, in 1972, my Grandfather, Judge Joe Eaton, issued an order desegregating Palm Beach County Schools, which like many school districts, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. Throughout the Civil Rights Era, it was the Courts who were always far ahead of the Legislatures in protecting the interests of minorities. There was no doubt that these decisions were wildly unpopular at the time they were issued, and had they been issued today, the courageous Judges who rendered them would no doubt be labeled “Activist Judges” or worse. But during this era, the concept of separation of powers was still recognized and Judges were permitted to make difficult decisions without fear of political retribution.

Contrast the Civil Rights Era to today’s hyper-partisan environment. In 2009, in Varnum v. Brien, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously struck down a statutory same sex marriage ban as unconstitutional. Once again, the Judiciary stood as the only impediment to the majority’s ability to deprive a minority group of their rights. But in an unprecedented and extraordinarily disturbing act of retribution, the three Iowa Supreme Court Justices on the ballot in 2010 were voted out of office, solely as punishment for their courage in protecting minority rights.

Our current Supreme Court faces a similar assault under Speaker Cannon’s proposals. His initial proposal to increase the merit retention requirement to 60%, thus allowing a minority of voters to remove Supreme Court Justices from office has, thankfully, been tabled for this session. But, as is often the case in Tallahassee, bad ideas like this have a tendency to re-appear year after year. As of this writing, the centerpiece of Cannon’s attempt to neuter the Courts was a court packing bill that would allow Governor Scott to appoint three new Justices to the Court, and move the three “Liberal” Justices appointed by Lawton Chiles to a newly created Criminal Division, thus ensuring that Republic Governors will have appointed all five Supreme Court Justices on the Civil Court.

Cannon’s attempt at court packing has its genesis in the fight over the legislature’s ability to continue to gerrymander legislative districts. In 2009, Fair District’s Florida placed two amendments on the ballot that would require Legislative Districts to be drawn based on geographical and municipal lines, rather than voter registration numbers. Needless to say, these proposals were viewed, by politicians in both parties, as a threat to their ability to perpetuate their party’s hold on their specially drawn districts. In an effort to nullify the effect of Amendments 5 and 6, the Legislature created its own Amendment – – Amendment 7, which would have essentially cancelled out Amendments 5 and 6. However, in August 2010, the Florida Supreme Court determined that the ballot language of Amendment 7 was confusing and misleading and therefore would not be placed on the ballot in November 2010. By preventing this misleading amendment from appearing on the ballot, the Supreme Court once again stopped the legislature from attempting to circumvent the will of the voters. Both Amendments 5 and 6 passed in November and re-districting will occur under the new guidelines in 2012.

These next few years will be a test as to whether our tripartite form of government can withstand a sustained assault by two of its branches determined to reduce the power of the third branch. This assault must not succeed. A co-equal, independent Judiciary is not merely crucial to our profession but indispensible to our democracy. As explained by Alexander Hamilton, “the complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essentially in a limited Constitution.” Though this conflict may, on its face, appear to be partisan, it is not. Cannon’s actions would be no less objectionable if he were a Democrat. The ability of the Judiciary to serve as a check and balance against the excesses of the legislature is at stake, and it is incumbent upon every member of this organization, and every member of the Florida Bar, regardless of political affiliation, to stand in opposition to these and future similar efforts.

The outcome of this battle is not certain. We can still influence. I urge each of our members to contact our local legislators to voice your opposition to this attack, especially Senator Anitere Flores, who chairs the committee that the Senate version of the Cannon Bill must pass through. For your convenience, we have attached a list of the contact information for the Miami Dade legislators. I cannot stress enough the importance of defeating this assault on the judiciary. Please do all that you can. Thank you for your consideration.

Douglas F. Eaton
President Miami Dade Justice Association
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Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. is a South Florida based law firm committed to the judicial system and to representing and obtaining justice for individuals – the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned, and to protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression. We do not represent government, corporations or large business interests.

Contact us at 866-785-GALE or by email to learn your rights.