TALLAHASSEE — The future of the Florida Supreme Court is sparking a legislative battle over whether the state’s next governor — or the governor after that — will have a say in who will be on the court.
Senate Republicans are backing a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it clear that whoever wins the election this fall will get to pick three justices to replace those who are scheduled to retire in the next few years.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon and sponsor of the amendment, insists he is trying to fix a looming constitutional crisis, but his efforts are drawing suspicions from Democrats.
Three of seven justices on the high court will be required to retire the same day in 2019 when a new governor is sworn in. They will be required to step down because they will have reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 during their six-year terms.
Those three justices — Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince — are part of an ongoing majority that has ruled against Scott and the GOP-controlled Legislature in a line of high-profile cases including a recent decision to let a medical marijuana amendment go on this year’s ballot.
Scott is seeking a second term this year, but if he is re-elected term limits would force him to leave office after eight years.
Lee maintains that there could be a legal battle between the outgoing and incoming governor over who actually gets to pick the successor. Back in 1996 Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush avoided a similar dispute when they agreed to make a joint appointment to the Supreme Court. In the 1950s, then-Gov. Charley Johns was allowed to appoint a judge just hours before he left office.
The proposed amendment would allow the outgoing governor to seek nominations and make appointments to fill a future vacancy on the court.
“The stakes are sufficiently high if we don’t clarify it now,” Lee said. “I don’t want this to be something I just whistle past the graveyard on.”
But the move by Senate Republicans is being questioned by Democrats who wonder why legislators need to deal with the issue this year.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, questioned why the appointments couldn’t be left to whoever is elected governor in 2018.
“If we are going to make this decision, one way or the other, why do you believe the best decision is to hand over the keys to the lame duck governor in this particular case as opposed to someone who had just been elected?” Clemens asked.
Lee disputed the idea of a “lame duck” governor and pointed out that the law grants the governor full power to the last day in office.
The Senate on Wednesday gave tentative approval to the amendment (SJR 1188) and could vote on it as soon as next week. It would require a yes vote from three-fifths of both the House and Senate in order to make it to the 2014 ballot.
There is no House companion to Lee’s bill at this time, but House Speaker Will Weatherford isn’t ruling out considering the proposal. Weatherford in a statement called Lee’s proposal “compelling” and said the House would review it once the Senate passes it.
The amendment would then need to be approved by 60 percent of voters to take effect.