Public services in Alabama face cuts in Gov. Bentley's budget plan
By David White, The Birmingham News
March 24, 2011
MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- Public services from restaurant inspections to outpatient care at mental health centers face cuts if Gov. Robert Bentley's spending plans for the state General Fund take effect, state officials warned lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday.
Leaders of state courts and agencies also warned that hundreds of state employees face layoffs under the spending plans.
''This is ugly," said state health officer Don Williamson.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said, ''The reality will start settling on the legislators that the current budgetary situation is going to be very, very painful for 2012."
Bentley has proposed roughly level spending or increases of state General Fund money this year and next year for Medicaid, which provides health care for poor and disabled people, the corrections department, which runs prisons, and a few other offices.
But under Bentley's plans, dozens of state departments face cuts in this year's budgeted General Fund spending and in appropriations proposed in Bentley's operating budget for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
As proposed by Bentley, cumulative cuts in General Fund spending over this year and next year range from 10 percent for the state court system to 45 percent for the agriculture department, Oil and Gas Board and other agencies.
The General Fund is a major source of state money for non-education services. Lawmakers could adjust Bentley's spending plans. Officials outlined planned responses. Lawmakers heard that if Bentley's spending plans take effect:
• The public health department would conduct fewer restaurant inspections, said Williamson, the department's director. It now inspects a typical restaurant three times a year. That would slide to about twice a year, he said.
• The number of Medicaid-eligible people getting in-home services from the department, services such as help with dressing, bathing or cleaning that help them stay out of nursing homes, would drop from 4,425 to 3,000 by September 2012, Williamson said.
• The number of Medicaid-eligible people getting in-home health care from the department, such as visits by nurses or therapists, would drop from about 8,500 now to 6,800 or fewer next year, Williamson said.
• The mental health department likely would cut funding for community-based centers that serve intellectually disabled people, so 754 people would lose services such as day care and 514 employees at those centers, which are run by cities, counties or non-profit groups, would lose jobs, said state mental health commissioner Zelia Baugh.
• The department likely would chop funding for community mental health centers, so 9,600 people would not get outpatient services and 71 community center employees would lose jobs, Baugh said.
• The state trial court system, which employs about 2,500 people, will see 141 layoffs on May 1 and as many as 250 layoffs on Oct. 1, said Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb. She said the Oct. 1 layoffs could be reduced to about 80 if lawmakers allow agency and court leaders to order furloughs, days on which employees don't work and aren't paid. Cobb said looming layoffs would ''guarantee slower, if not impossible at times, administration of justice in certain areas."
• The number of employees at district attorney offices statewide will drop from about 1,000 to 800, predicted Randy Hillman, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association. He said such cuts would lengthen the time for criminal cases to go to trial.
• The number of people working at the state Geological Survey and state Oil and Gas Board would drop from a total of 74 to about 50, said state geologist Nick Tew. The Oil and Gas Board oversees permitting and safety for the roughly 7,000 oil and natural gas wells in Alabama, he said.
• The state Forestry Commission, which employs 263 people, would lose 80 to 90 positions, said Dan Jackson, forest operations division director for the commission. He said that cut would lead to longer response times to fires and the loss of more homes and forests. ''Longer response times will mean bigger fires," Jackson said.
• The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences would close laboratories in Florence, Jacksonville and Dothan, which now analyze drug cases, and move those cases and lab employees to regional labs in Huntsville, Hoover, Montgomery and Mobile, said director Mike Sparks.
Rep. Jim Barton, R-Mobile, said, ''We know these budget cuts are going to be devastating to a lot of these departments. We're going to do all we can to take as much pain away as we can, but it's just going to be extremely painful."
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Law of Averages - Why the law-school bubble is bursting
By Annie Lowrey, SLATE Magazine
March 18, 2011
The law-school bubble may have just burst.
According to data from the Law School Admission Council, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, the number of applicants to law school has dropped a whopping 11.5 percent year-to-year—to the lowest level since 2001 at this point in the application cycle. Some schools are still accepting applications, so the numbers will change in the coming weeks, says the council's Wendy Margolis. But about 90 percent of applications are in, and the pattern is clear.
It is a remarkable turnaround. The number of applicants to law school has waxed and waned over the course of the past decade, but the general trend has been up. And applications took a further turn skyward when the recession hit. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of LSAT takers jumped 20 percent, and the number of applicants swelled 6.3 percent. (Between 2001 and 2002, after the dot-com bubble burst, the number of applicants actually jumped more, by nearly 20 percent.)
Over the past decade, the number of law-school students has also steadily increased, as universities have opened or expanded their schools. Law schools tend to be moneymakers: They're cheap to set up, and tuition runs high, even at poorly rated programs. Thus, universities have added them on with relish, and the list of approved law schools has increased 9 percent in the past decade, to 200. That means that the number of new lawyers minted every year has not stopped growing, either: Law schools awarded 44,004 degrees last year, up 13 percent in a decade.
But the prospects for those legions of new lawyers have been grim, a fact hardly unbeknownst to them. As I reported this fall, in the past few years, young lawyers faced a glut of competition from other legal professionals; plummeting wages; a reduction in openings in and offers at big law firms; and cripplingly high student-loan debts. When the recession hit, thousands of young lawyers suddenly found themselves trying to work off six figures of debt in pay-per-hour assistant gigs. Granted, things are looking better. But the National Association of Legal-Career Professionals still cautions that "entry-level recruiting volumes have not returned to anything like the levels measured before the recession."
The tide seems to be turning. Fewer applicants and applications do not translate into fewer lawyers, of course—and falling demand for legal services is the ultimate root of the problem. But the drop in applicants does seem to mean that young folks considering the legal profession are getting savvier.
So what explains the drop in applications? First, the job market is getting better, if slowly. When the economy turns around, in general, people tend to enter the workforce rather than head for graduate school. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the past year, the unemployment rate has declined from 14.9 percent to 14.6 percent for 20- to 24-year olds, and from 9.9 percent to 9.6 percent for 25- to 34-year-olds. (More than 80 percent of law-school applicants fall in that age range.) For people with a college degree of all ages, the rate has fallen from 5.0 to 4.4 percent in the past year. The labor market has not gotten remarkably better, but it has improved, translating into fewer graduate-school applications.
But the biggest reason may be cultural, not economic. In the past year or two, scads of blogs have committed themselves to exposing law school as a "scam," and the New York Timesand Wall Street Journalhave devoted thousands of words to telling readers why law school is a bad, bad idea if you do not actuallywant to be a lawyer. Look to any of a dozen blogs or news sites to explain how wages for legal workers might continue to fall, as automation takes over rote tasks and businesses increasingly refuse to pay obscenely high per-hour fees. Wandering further into the realm of anecdata, virtually every young lawyer or law student I know would love to talk my ear off about the worrisome employment prospects for new legal professionals.
Once the conventional wisdom has spotted a bubble—whether in housing or gold or anything else—it tends to burst. That will come as cold comfort to the thousands of young lawyers struggling to pay their debts. But it may be something to consider for anyone willing to pay the law school of her choice six figures to extend her academic career for another three years. Maybe by then the recovery will actually be genuine.
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Law school accreditation proposal would boost job placement transparency
Karen Sloan, National Law Journal
March 21, 2011
The latest proposed drafts of the American Bar Association's law school accreditation standards are out, and they would change how schools report graduate employment information, impose tougher bar passage rate requirements and ease limits on the number credit hours students may take through distance education.
The drafts retain controversial changes that have prompted public debate thus far — namely, the removal of what many consider a requirement that law schools maintain a tenure system; elimination of the Law School Admission Test as a requirement in admissions decisions; and evaluation of schools based on how well they achieve stated learning goals.
The faculties of three law schools have passed resolutions opposing any changes involving tenure.
The accuracy of law graduate employment data has been a hot topic for the past year.
In a letter accompanying its draft proposal, the consumer information subcommittee of the ABA's Standards Review Committee wrote that the existing requirement that schools publish "basic consumer information" and "placement rates" leaves much to interpretation.
"Not surprisingly, with such a vague standard, schools' practices vary widely," the subcommittee wrote. "Some schools provide detailed information; others provide a bare minimum."
For example, the existing standards do not require schools to disclose the percentage of employed graduates working in part-time or non-legal jobs. Nor do they account for graduates whose employment status is unknown — the group most likely to be unemployed.
"Too much information is being presented in a potentially misleading fashion," the subcommittee wrote.
Under its proposal, law schools would disclose the percentage of students whose employment status after nine months is unknown, as well as the percentage with law school-funded jobs. Additionally, schools would have to report the percentage of employed graduates who have jobs requiring bar passage and those in non-legal jobs.
Schools would have to stipulate how many students are in part-time and full-time jobs, and would continue to disclose the number of graduates in business, government, judicial clerkships and academia.
The proposal was met with some concern from the leaders of Law School Transparency, a Tennessee-based nonprofit started last year by two Vanderbilt law students who want to wrest more detailed employment data from law schools.
Co-founder Kyle McEntee said the group would like to see salary information broken down by individual graduate rather than averaged out according to job description.
"Essentially, we're a little concerned about the lack of connectivity between jobs and salary information," he said. "This does some disaggregation of the current salary information, but it doesn't go far enough."
Robert Morse, director of research at U.S. News & World Report, said the magazine would incorporate the more detailed employment information into its law school rankings, should the proposal be adopted.
Job statistics aren't the only new element in the latest proposals. The existing standards allow students to take no more than 12 credit hours through distance education
courses. That limit would bump up to 20 credits, although students could not take online courses during their first year.
Bar passage rate requirements would also increase, from the current 75%. Under the proposed standard, 80% of the students who graduated within the past five years and sit for the bar must pass. That requirement must be met in three or more of any past five years. The existing standard requires that a school's first-time bar passage rate be no more than 15% below that of other accredited law schools in the same jurisdiction. Under the new proposal, that percentage would be reduced to 10%.
The Standards Review Committee is scheduled to discuss these proposals during its next meeting on April 2 and 3 in Chicago. The committee will hold an open forum during the meeting when interested parties may comment on the proposals. Committee Chairman Donald Polden, dean of Santa Clara University School of Law, has urged other law school deans to offer input regarding the revised standards.
"In conducting the comprehensive review we have tried to provide law schools with more flexibility than the current standards permit, increase the transparency of accreditation decisions, consider ways to make accreditation review less complicated and costly, and improve the clarity of the policies and rules," Polden wrote to the deans. "But, I think it is fair to say that everyone won't like every change."
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Senator suggests paying Florida judges bonuses to hear more cases
By Steve Bousquet, St. Petersburg Times/Herald (Florida)
March 24, 2011
TALLAHASSEE — As Florida courts groan under the weight of heavy case backlogs, a powerful senator is suggesting a highly controversial remedy: paying judges more money to hear more cases.
Republican Sen. J.D. Alexander, the influential budget chairman from Lake Wales, wants to pay trial court judges up to an additional $12,000 a year if they meet specific numerical quarterly performance goals. The extra money would be dished out in $3,000 increments.
"I'm very serious about it," Alexander said. "What we're trying to do is create some incentives for the courts that are fair and reasonable and save us a lot of money."
Alexander's so-called Judicial Workload Incentive Plan is expected to be part of the proposed Senate budget to be considered next week, but it's already receiving a mostly hostile reception among senators who directly oversee the judicial branch's budget.
Despite Alexander's unmatched clout when it comes to legislative spending, senators aren't shy about openly lampooning his idea.
"Judges don't need this," said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. "I think they like to claim they're professionals. I don't think they need to be rewarded for managing their dockets."
Alexander's outside-the-box bonus plan has raised hackles for another reason: Prosecutors and public defenders, who actually try cases, are being asked to absorb another round of budget cuts — 6 percent in the Senate — which will mean fewer people to try cases.
If anybody deserves a raise in the court system, Bennett argued, it's front-line prosecutors and public defenders, many of whom earn less than $40,000 a year and are saddled with huge loans from law school.
"But a judge who's knocking down a buck and a quarter? Do your job," Bennett said. "Nobody else I know in the state of Florida is getting a raise."
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, also pointed to the pay gap between judges and other state workers.
"We certainly shouldn't be giving them a bonus to do the work they're doing," Fasano said. "The rank-and-file workers in this state haven't seen a pay raise in almost four years. Many of them are barely getting by."
Circuit judges in Florida earn $142,178 a year, and county judges, who mostly handle misdemeanors and small claims, are paid $134,280.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge Thomas McGrady also criticized Alexander's proposal.
"It presumes that we're not managing cases the way they think we should, and I don't accept that premise," McGrady said Wednesday. "We're trying to close as many as we can."
On the Fasano-led Senate budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations, only Republican Sen. Ronda Storms defended Alexander's proposal.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," Storms told senators. "All up and down the line, people are not moving their dockets. I think it's a good idea."
The court system didn't ask for the $11 million in bonus money, and judges are sensitive to the perception that they work light schedules, especially on Fridays.
Then there's the perception of so-called cash register justice — that if judges have a financial incentive to try cases faster, they may be tempted to cut corners by denying continuances in cases.
"While the concept is good and we want efficiency in our judicial system, I think it's hard to quantify the number of cases you hear. They're all different," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a lawyer and a member of the courts' budget panel. "Every single lawyer that comes in has a different methodology of how they try cases."
Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, a lawyer, said the state can't afford the bonus money and most judges are already conscientious about managing their cases.
"The judges are already personally motivated to move their dockets," Joyner said.
As the Senate and House slowly begin their elaborate spring dance and resolve a multitude of budgetary differences, the incentive plan is nowhere to be found in the House, and Speaker Dean Cannon has no official position, his spokeswoman said.
The Florida Bar has not taken a position on Alexander's incentive plan.
Circuit Judges Belvin Perry of Orlando and John Laurent of Bartow, who closely monitor any legislation affecting judges, both said they did not know enough about the incentive program to comment on it.
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State Bar president visits Scottsboro Rotary Club
By Laura Pitts, Scottsboro Daily Sentinel
March 16, 2011
Emphasis on civic responsibility and civic education was the topic at Wednesday's meeting of the Scottsboro Rotary Club.
Alyce Manley Spruell, current President of the Alabama State Bar Association, addressed the club, speaking specifically about ways to develop civic education in the classroom and in the community.
Spruell posed the question of whether or not defending the rule of law is a civic duty and is increasing the need to civic education in schools and communities is needed.
"I say yes to both of these, and regardless, understanding the rule of law is an issue that affects the access to justice," Spruell said.
Civic responsibility is an aspect of daily life Spruell said has been pushed aside, particularly in the classroom.
"As rotarians and leaders in the community, we need to teach our young adults and adults from foreign countries what it means to be civically responsible to the world around us."
During her year as Bar President, Spruell plans to highlight active involvement from bar membership to impact both students and community understanding toward government. Prior to taking her position, Spruell served as a state bar officer and on the Board of Bar Commissioners for six years, representing Tuscaloosa County.
Spruel quoted from a 2007 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center that found 74 percent of Americans said they knew at least one of the three branches of government, though only 36 percent could correctly name one of them. The survey also discovered that 15 percent of Americans knew that John Roberts is the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while 66 percent could name one of the judges on the panel of "American Idol."
"That is absurd," she said. "We are seeing more a curriculum that teachers to the test. These students need to learn, explore, assess and connect civic concepts by participating in them, not being told them."
Using online mediums to further education civic education is a area Spreull supports in her efforts to increase civic awareness.
The Center for Civics Education's web site www.civiced.org, and The Alabama Center for Law and Civics Education's www.aclce.org both promote educational teaching tools for the teaching and emphasis of civic education.
Spruell's favorite of the three online sites is ICivics. www.iCivics.org, an interactive game site that introduces students to various First Amendment and constitutional law problems to research and solve.
"I encourage everyone, student and parent, to utilize these web sites and the civic learning they promote," Spruell said.
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Law School Loses Its Allure as Jobs at Firms Are Scarce
By NATHAN KOPPEL , The Wall Street Journal
March 17, 2011
Student applications to law schools are down sharply this year, as college seniors grow leery of a degree that promises certain debt and uncertain job prospects.
The number of law-school applicants this year is down 11.5% from a year ago to 66,876, according to the Law School Admission Council Inc. The figure, which is a tally of applications for the fall 2011 class, is the lowest since 2001 at this stage of the process.
The Council estimates that the application process is 86% complete, based on historical patterns.
Law school's high cost is a reason a degree may not pay off, a report warns.
Prospective law students increasingly are aware of the grim job market for lawyers and the challenges they would face in paying off law-school loans, college career advisers said. Corporate law firms, long the employer of choice for many graduates, have cut back on hiring in recent years, and most firms haven't raised salaries for starting lawyers.
A law degree can offer ample financial rewards for a select few. Some partners at corporate law firms now bill north of $1,000 an hour and earn more than $2 million annually. But to get to those exalted heights, they have to ace law school, land one of the dwindling number of jobs at a corporate firm, and then perform years of often grueling grunt work to make partner. It's far from a sure-fire bet.
Even the American Bar Association has seen fit to drive home the risks of law school. "The rising cost of a legal education and the realities of the legal job market mean that going to law school may not pay off," the ABA said in a 2009 report, which noted that the average law student could expect to graduate with more than $100,000 in school debt.
"I'm hearing from the students I work with that they are concerned about the value of a law degree," said Tim Stiles, a career adviser at the University of North Carolina. Students, he said, often tell him they have read press accounts about the difficulty of finding law jobs.
Some students are starting to feel they don't need an advanced degree to improve their career opportunities, college advisers said.
Business-school applications for the fall 2011 class have not been tallied yet by the Graduate Management Admission Council. But last year, the average number of applications to full-time graduate programs declined 1.8%, the Council said, the first decline since 2005.
"When the economy first went down, students saw law school as a way to dodge the work force," said Ryan Heitkamp, a pre-law adviser at Ohio State University. "The news has gotten out that law school is not necessarily a safe backup plan."
At Fordham University School of Law in New York, applications this year are down 15%, and those applying "appear to have analyzed the investment in law school closely and are serious about pursuing a career in law," said Carrie Johnson, a school spokeswoman.
Kent Syverud, dean of the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, where applications this year declined more than 11%, said it was a good thing prospective students now were more "clear eyed" about the risks and rewards of a law degree.
"The froth in the applicant pool—those who were just going to law school because they didn't know what else to do and everyone told them it was a safe bet—is pretty well gone," he said.
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People on the Move
Birmingham Business Journal
March 8, 2011
Anil A. Mujumdar and T. Dylan Reeves, attorneys with Haskell Slaughter Young & Rediker LLC, have been appointed to the board of editors of The Alabama Lawyer, the official periodical of the Alabama State Bar. Mujumdar and Reeves have each been appointed to terms on the board through July 2013.
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Alabama chief justice warns of hundreds of layoffs in court system in 2012 state budget
By Bob Lowry, The Huntsville Times
March 08, 2011
MONTGOMERY -- Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb today warned there will be as many as 500 layoffs in the state court system starting Oct. 1 under Gov. Robert Bentley's proposed budget.
But the chief justice told a joint session of the Legislature she was grateful that Bentley proposed only about a 10 percent budget cut for the Unified Court System.
"Nevertheless, a 10 percent reduction will cause hundreds of layoffs to a work force that is already down to 2005 numbers," she said.
Cobb said she will have to immediately lay off 74 bailiffs and law clerks around the state, but that number will grow to the hundreds in the new budget year.
The court system requested $162.7 million for fiscal 2012, but Bentley is proposing the courts receive $158.1 million.
Cobb said she would be forced to cut out travel for judges between circuits, and training expenditures have been eliminated.
She said the Bentley administration had indicated the courts would save about $4 million through changes in retirement benefits, but she said those savings won't be realized until the 2013 budget year.
"Somebody has got to find a way to come up with those dollars," Cobb said after the speech. "If they don't, I may have to cut out small claims courts; I may have to cut out half the jury trials in this state; I don't have the personnel. We literally have cut and cut and cut. There is nothing else to cut."
Cobb reminded lawmakers that the court system is the only branch of state government for which the state constitution mandates an "adequate" level of funding.
Meanwhile, Cobb endorsed findings by the Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition 2010, which was created by the Legislature last year.
Some of those included the creation of a new Class D felony classification and the reclassification of certain drug and property offenses as Class D felonies, revising the valuation threshold for property offenses, restructuring and reclassifying offenses involving marijuana and controlled substances, amending Alabama's driver's license suspension law to remove certain drug-related offenses to help people participating in drug court get to court and creating a first-time offender law.
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Voters may decide to make major changes in Florida's courts
Lloyd Dunkelberger, The Gainesville Sun (Florida)
March 15, 2011
TALLAHASSEE — Leander Shaw would never have finished his term as the first African-American chief justice on the Florida Supreme Court if the judicial changes lawmakers want to impose had been in place when he served.
In 1990, opponents targeted Shaw after he wrote the majority opinion in a controversial parental-consent abortion case. Despite the opposition, Shaw retained his seat with 59.6 percent of the vote — well above the majority he needed to secure another six-year term on the state's highest court.
But future judges who received such a retention vote would be unseated under changes that state lawmakers — emboldened by a solidly conservative majority and a strong push from House Speaker Dean Cannon — began pushing last week in aggressive revision of Florida's appellate system.
Among the changes, subject to voter approval as constitutional amendments in the 2012 general election, would be the requirement that Supreme Court justices, as well as judges on Florida's five district courts of appeal, win a 60 percent retention vote.
If that standard had been in place 20 years ago, Shaw, who went on to serve 20 years on the court, would have lost his seat in 1990. Current Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga would have lost his seat last year with 59 percent of the retention vote.
Seven judges on Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal, which has been embroiled in a controversy over the construction of a costly new court building in Tallahassee, would have lost their seats in the 2010 election.
The higher retention-vote standard is just one of nearly a half dozen far-reaching measures that could fundamentally change Florida's appellate courts.
Cannon, R-Winter Park, and other proponents say changes are needed to make the courts more efficient and accountabile. He also wants to split the existing seven-member Supreme Court into two new courts, with five justices each, one to handle civil cases and the other criminal.
In seeking to raise the retention vote requirement, House supporters note that no judges have lost a seat through the existing system, which dates to the early 1970s, fostering “an environment of autonomy without accountability.”
A lawyer himself, Cannon said he respects the judiciary's independence but believes its power must be checked when it exceeds its constitutional limits. Republican legislative leaders are still stinging from the Supreme Court's rejection of three constitutional amendments drafted by lawmakers last year.
Critics, including most Democrats, and some legal scholars have condemned the initiatives, saying they would weaken the state's judiciary and tilt it to the political right.
Shaw, an 80-year-old retired jurist living in Leon County, questioned the rationale behind the moves, saying the state's highest court will always be involved in contentious cases in which rulings are bound to anger one constituency or another.
“If they're not controversial, they normally don't make it to the Supreme Court,” Shaw said.
Shaw called the Legislature's actions an attack on the judiciary's independence.
“I see something that I've never really seen before: a huge theme to get back at the court in some way,” Shaw said. “That's the only way I can think about it. I don't see the court as being broken.”
After two decades on the court, Shaw said he can't remember the number of constitutional amendments that he ruled on.
“Many of them we found deficient,” Shaw said. “But we never had a legislature say, ‘Well, we've got something for you,' and go about it in this fashion.”
Shaw said the lower retention threshhold would make it easier for judges to be “painted into a corner,” as either liberal or conservative, making them more prone to be “knocked off the court.”
Some legal scholars also question the need for such wide-ranging changes in the state courts.
“This political attack on the court is troubling,” said University of Florida law professor emeritus Joe Little. “Judicial independence is critical in our system of government. You might look at this way: a free and independent press and a free and independent judiciary have been the two agencies that have historically kept the legislature and executive from becoming tyrants.”
If changes are necessary, Little said lawmakers could look at fixes such as allowing the district courts of appeal to handle death penalty cases, leaving only lower court disputes to make their way to the state's highest court.
He also criticized the moves by lawmakers to allow the state Senate to confirm appellate judges — now done at the federal level. He said the merit retention-nominating process was originally created to “take politics” out of the judicial system.
Little said the changes essentially challenge the American constitutional governance system created in the 1803 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Marbury vs. Madison, which gave the courts the “last say on what the constitution and laws mean.”
But Cannon insists his goal is not to weaken the judiciary. And he said part of his reform effort will be making sure the courts are properly funded, an issue that court supporters say is more critical to judicial efficiency than changing the system.
Yet Cannon also said lawmakers need to “modernize” the court's rule-making powers, giving lawmakers a large role in writing rules.
“I believe very strongly in the independence of the judiciary and I won't support any proposals that undermine our courts,” Cannon said. “However, judicial independence should never be offered as an excuse to escape accountability or the limits of our constitution.”
Here are some of the wide-ranging changes lawmakers are considering asking voters to approve for Florida's appellate courts:
— Dividing the seven-member Florida Supreme Court into two separate five-member courts, with one handling criminal appeals and the other civil cases. It would give Gov. Rick Scott the ability to appoint three new justices.
— Require all appellate judges, including the Supreme Court and the five district courts of appeal, to face a confirmation vote in the state Senate once nominated by the governor.
— Allow the governor to appoint a chief justice to the Supreme Court, with the chief justice serving until his or her retirement. Currently, the court picks its own chief justice and rotates the position every two years.
— Require all appellate judges to win a 60 percent vote from the electorate in order to retain their seats. Judges now must retain their seats by a majority vote.
— Give the power to write procedural rules for the courts to the Legislature. The Supreme Court now writes the rules, with lawmakers having the ability to repeal them with a two-thirds vote.
— Open up the investigation of ethics complaints against judges in the Judicial Qualifications Commission. Currently, cases remained permanently closed unless the panel finds “probable cause” to proceed with a formal investigation.