Lawmakers May Split Supreme Court into Two

The Florida Supreme Court may split into two entities under legislation being proposed during the 2011 Session.

The decision has called much attention to the state Supreme Court.

House Joint Resolution 7111 sponsored by Rep. Eric Eisnaugle (R-Orlando), would split the state Supreme Court into different branches: one to handle only civil cases and one to handle only criminal cases.

By splitting the state Supreme Court into the Supreme Court of Criminal Appeals and of Civil Appeals, legislators hopes to speed up the judicial process.

House Speaker Dean Cannon is in favor of HJR 7111.

“The creation of the two courts will result in greater scrutiny and better justice in criminal cases, especially in death penalty cases,” said Cannon in a speech at the beginning of the legislative session on March 8.

Since 2000, 27 death row inmates died of natural causes while there were only 25 inmates executed, according to the court’s Office of Public Information.

Eisnaugle hosted a workshop to show how the bill will affect the Supreme Court. He made a point of stressing the strain of death penalty cases.

“A former justice has been quoted as saying that death penalty cases in Florida make up about 12 percent of the cases, but about 50 percent of the court’s work load,” said Eisnaugle.

“Those numbers would illustrate right there the incredible complexity of death penalty cases and the work load that has to go into those,” said Eisnaugle at the Jan. 26 “Workshop on Court Rulemaking,” in House office building.

In order to make the split, there has to be an amendment to the state Constitution. The Constitution states that there can only be seven justices. Splitting the house would The three most experienced justices, Barbara Pariente, Fred

Lewis and Peggy Quince, would cover the death penalty cases in the criminal court and two more would be appointed to that court. The remaining four justices would be put in the civil court and one would be appointed. Gov. Rick Scott would have to appoint three justices.

These appointments have left some uneasy about the split.

“These appointments could very well change recent opinions that were somewhat unpopular,” said Rep. Darren Soto, (D-Orlando) at the workshop.

Texas and Oklahoma have a similar court system, giving an example of how the system will run. Texas’ system has more in common with Florida’s, with an intermediate level of appellate review.

As the bill moves through the House and the Senate this legislative session, the courts will not face any changes soon.

First, three-fifths of the House and Senate must approve the amendments to the Constitution. Then there will be a waiting period until the general elections in 2012 for 60 percent of voters to approve the change. The House Civil Justice Committee passed the bill on March 17, with a 10-5 vote.

Eisnaugle was unavailable for further comment.