The fate of House Speaker Dean Cannon’s overhaul of the Supreme Court seemed to rest on a knife’s edge Thursday evening, with little more than a week to go in the legislative session and several Republican senators sounding hesitant about the proposal despite heavy lobbying by leadership.
The proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 7111), which would divide the Supreme Court into two panels, change the rules for selecting justices and impose a floor for judicial funding, was teed up for a vote on final passage in the Senate. But even as it advanced, the bill seemed to be coming up short.
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Unless they draw some Democratic support for the measure, Republicans need 24 of their 28 members to back the constitutional amendment. But four senators said flatly after the debate that they would not support it, and a fifth said he would sponsor an amendment to strip the divided Supreme Court from the bill.
“They don’t have the votes for it,” said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, one of the opponents.
Even Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who has strongly backed the measure because of its importance to Cannon, conceded Thursday that there were reservations in his caucus because of the gravity of the change.
“There are some real hesitations on it, of course,” he said. “This is a change, and that’s why we’re having a debate.”
Haridopolos didn’t say when the Senate might hold a vote on the measure, or if he had guaranteed Cannon that one would be held — aside from noting that the bill is now on third reading.
“That gives it a very good chance at having a vote, up or down, and I expect that vote to take place,” he said.
Some of the Republican reservations about the amendment were clear as the discussions began on the floor. Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, hammered the estimated $21 million cost of the measure — at one point facetiously saying she was short of breath at the idea — and portraying it as a poorly considered proposal.
“We’re the Senate,” she said. “We’re the deliberative body. We don’t run off half-cocked.”
Storms later said she was “in concrete” when it came to her opposition to the measure.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, continually highlighted the current Supreme Court’s 102 percent clearance rate to rebut supporters’ suggestions that the split between civil and criminal branches was needed to improve the bench’s efficiency.
“There are a bunch of things in that bill, regarding adoption of rules, repeal of rules, that I can support,” he said after the session, “but the Supreme Court reconfiguration, I can’t — not in good conscience.”
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Wednesday he couldn’t support the bill and blasted Cannon’s tactics in trying to push the measure through the Legislature.
Meanwhile, Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, said he would file an amendment attempting to pull the divided court out of the bill. When asked what might happen if the amendment failed, Simmons compared himself to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.
“I just won’t think about that,” he said.
Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, could provide a vote for the measure on the floor after supporting it in the Senate Budget Committee. But some senators were still facing intense pressure and bargaining from leadership, suggesting to opponents that the proposal was still short.
“If they had the votes, they wouldn’t still be negotiating with people,” Storms said.
In a brief conversation with reporters Thursday, Cannon was vague about the extent of his discussions with senators.
“I have made the case to a lot of people, and continue to, that this is great policy and it ought to go to the voters,” he said.
Haridopolos did not directly address reports that leadership had guaranteed not to bring to the floor a combustible bill dealing with union dues, though that proposal is widely considered dead in any case.
Some of the senators resisting Cannon’s amendment also oppose the union bill.
“There’s always been a back and forth,” Haridopolos said. “This is Tallahassee.”
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida