[W]e set up the courts. We can unset the courts.
–Tom Delay, Former House Majority Leader, U.S. House of Representatives
Delay obviously didn’t like courts. He made this comment even before he was convicted in court of money laundering and sentenced to prison. A similar contempt for courts appears to be the common thread running through several bills recently proposed here in Florida.
Rick Scott and his allies were elected last November on a platform of getting Floridians back to work. But politicians don’t seem interested in jobs right now. Instead, our lawmakers have spent a big chunk of this legislative session considering sweeping changes to Florida’s court system. These include bills, or proposals within bills, to expand the Florida Supreme Court and split it into two divisions, change the process by which judges are appointed, change court system funding, and give the legislature oversight over changes in court rules.
Matt Gaetz, a Republican representative from Destin, sponsored the bill to change the appointment of judges. His bill would eliminate the Florida Bar’s role in recommending people to be on the panels that nominate candidates to be judges (the judicial nominating commission). It would also replace every existing member of the panels with new members chosen by the governor.
If this bill passes, of course, the governor will simply be able to choose people who agree with his ideology. The governor’s ideological allies will then make all the critical decisions about who becomes a judge in Florida’s court system.
Gaetz made no apologies for the power grab his bill represents:
The accusation that this bill is political, I’ll confess to that . . . [R]ight now we have a lack of that political accountability, and the bill restores it.
Similar ideas about the court system appear to be driving the debate over court funding. Gerald Kogan, a former justice of the Supreme Court, said many lawmakers believe courts are no more than “an agency of the legislature” because the legislature provides their funding. Kogan lamented the fact that so few legislators seem to understand that courts are a separate and co-equal branch of government.
We are, as any student of civics learns, a nation of laws. An independent judicial system is critical to the functioning of our system of government. However, many members of our legislature do not seem to respect this separation of powers. Instead, they consider the court system an obstacle to their agenda which can be brought to heel through punitive budgeting or “reorganization” schemes.
In the long run, trying to make judges bend to political whims is short-sighted. Swings in voter preferences mean a party in power may find itself out of power within a few years. When that happens, that party’s members may not like judges being pressured to follow someone else’s political agenda. In other words, what comes around can indeed go around.