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First Cuban-American Chief Justice Takes Oath in Florida

-court090712gb15.jpg20120907“This is the way our judicial system should look,” Jorge Labarga said after taking the oath of office Monday to become Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

He is the first Cuban-American to become Chief Justice in Florida, and from the court’s dais, he extended his arms toward his six fellow justices, according to the Miami Herald. They include a white woman, an African-American man, an African-American woman, and three white men.

Justice Labarga was appointed to the circuit court by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1996, and to the Supreme Court by then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009. He was selected Chief Justice by his colleagues.

“Chief Justice Labarga is the first Cuban-American to ascend to chief justice, but he is also the first justice of Hispanic descent to ascend to chief justice,” former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero said, according to The Sun-Sentinel. “This is a very proud moment for all Hispanics.”

Justice at Stake believes that diversity on the bench improves the quality of justice and builds faith and confidence in the legitimacy of the courts. You can learn more from the JAS web page on the topic.

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Court-Packing Measure Approved by Florida House

florida sealA proposed constitutional amendment that would enable a Florida Supreme Court-packing scheme advanced closer to a statewide referendum when the state House approved it 74-45 along partisan lines on Wednesday.

It would allow an outgoing governor to make prospective appointments of judges, and if enacted would permit the next governor to choose a majority of the state Supreme Court. The state Senate approved the measure earlier, and for it to become law, it must win approval of 60 percent of voters on Election Day, according to a Miami Herald blog post.

The measure specifically would allow a governor who is stepping down to make appointments to the bench for vacancies that occur on inauguration day, in order to clarify uncertainty in existing law as to whether such appointments are made by the arriving, or departing, governor. Read more

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Potential Changes for Merit Selection in Alaska and Florida

The possibility of moving merit selection legislation forward in several states was covered on Gavel Grab last week.  Since then some of the mentioned changes have moved forward in Alaska and Florida as reported on Gavel to Gavel.

In Alaska, two bills have the potential to alter the state’s Judicial Council.  While one went into limbo due to a canceled hearing, the SJR 21 was amended and voted on in the Senate Finance Committee and will be advanced to the Senate Floor.

Meanwhile, the Florida Senate has advanced a proposed constitutional amendment to allow governors to make “prospective appointments” for anticipated appellate court vacancies.  If the amendment goes on to be approved and Republican Governor Rick Scott is reelected, he could fill all three seats on the state supreme court currently being held by Democrat-appointed justices.

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Florida Court-Packing Proposal Advances in State Senate

A court-packing proposal that would permit Florida’s next governor to choose a majority of the state Supreme Court (see Gavel Grab) won approval in a state Senate committee, and it faces a hearing in a second committee later.

The proposed constitutional amendment would allow an outgoing governor to make prospective appointments of judges. At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, panel chairman and bill sponsor Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican, said the measure was intended to clarify muddled existing law and avoid the possibility of a constitutional crisis when one governor is leaving office, a successor is taking office, and a justice’s term expires on inauguration day.

According to a Miami Herald blog, however, the proposal allows court-packing, and Democrats opposed it:

“[B]ecause of a coincidence of timing, the terms of three of the seven sitting justices are expected to expire at the same time as the term of the next governor. As a result, the proposed amendment effectively allows the governor elected in 2014 to stack the court as one Read more

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Another Court-Packing Plan Weighed in Florida Legislature

A proposed constitutional amendment in Florida puts another court-packing scheme before the  legislature. It would allow an outgoing governor to make prospective appointments of judges, and if passed would permit the next governor to choose a majority of the state Supreme Court, the Miami Herald reports.

If the measure were adopted, the next governor would be able to appoint not only the successor to a justice who retires in January 2017 but also successors to three justices who are scheduled to retire in January 2019, the newspaper said. There are seven justices on the court. The latter three make up the court’s liberal wing; the bill sponsor is a Republican.

The measure specifically allows the governor who is stepping down to make appointments to the bench for vacancies that occur on inauguration day, in order to clarify uncertainty in existing law as to whether such appointments are made by the arriving, or departing, governor.

There is “commotion” in the legal community about giving such Read more

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In Final Hours, Senate Confirms Judge for Federal Court in Florida

BULLETIN: The Senate confirmed Judge Brian Davis for a federal district judgeship in Florida on a vote of 68-26. His nomination had been before the Senate for more than 650 days, according to the Florida Times-Union.

The U.S. Senate, its proceedings hobbled by partisan discord, reached an agreement on Thursday night to vote on a small batch of nominations and began doing so on Friday morning.

One of the nominations teed up for action was that of Judge Brian Davis for a federal district judgeship in Florida. It appeared that action on the nomination of Judge Robert Wilkins for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was a casualty of escalated partisanship and would not be brought up for action before the Senate’s holiday recess, which was to begin shortly.

The New York Times reported that Senate business was “derailed by discord all week” and that much of it was driven by Republicans’ unhappiness over Democrats’ recent pulling the trigger on the so-called “nuclear option” to change its rules and eliminate filibusters on cabinet nominees and all judicial nominees except those for the Supreme Court.

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Former Sen. Villalobos of Florida Joins Justice at Stake Board

Former Florida state Sen. J. Alex Villalobos, a leader in defending fair and impartial courts, has joined the Justice at Stake Board of Directors, JAS announced on Thursday.

Villalobos is Of Counsel at Meyer, Brooks, Demma and Blohm, P.A. He is a former Republican Majority Whip in the Florida House of Representatives and a former Republican Majority Leader in the Florida Senate. He is president of Democracy at Stake, a coalition of Florida individuals and organizations that works to keep politics out of the courts.

“We are delighted to have Sen. Villalobos join the Justice at Stake Board,” Mark Harrison, chairman of the JAS Board of Directors, said in a statement. “He brings sterling experience as a lawyer and a legislative leader. And he deeply understands the importance of bipartisanship when it comes to defending courts against attacks by special interests or politicians.”

Liz Seaton, acting JAS executive director, said Villalobos “has served on the front lines in protecting every American’s right to a fair day in court, and he provided strong bipartisan leadership when three Florida Supreme Court justices were targeted in last year’s retention elections by groups unhappy with court rulings.”

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KS Editorial Forecasts ‘Heated Ideological Battle’ Over Court

Political deal-making in appointing top judges and court-stacking are among the dangers posed by legislation introduced in Kansas to change the way judges are selected, a Lawrence Journal World editorial says. It warns of a likely “heated ideological battle next year about the role and significance of the state’s highest court.”

The editorial dissects three late-session proposals introduced by Republican Rep. Lance Kinzer (see Gavel Grab). The proposals would eliminate merit selection for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court and replace it with a federal-style appointment-and-Senate-confirmation system; if that fails, reduce from 75 to 65 the mandatory retirement age for these judges; and split the Supreme Court in two, with a Court of Criminal Appeals handling criminal cases and the Supreme Court handling civil cases.

The editorial sees at play the guiding hand of politicians unhappy with court rulings, and it identifies perils of the proposals:

“It’s no secret that Gov. Sam Brownback and many state legislators are upset with the Kansas Supreme Court and its decisions on a number of issues — particularly its ruling that the state isn’t fulfilling its constitutional mandate to properly fund K-12 education. Rather than work to pass legislation or amend the constitution to deal with specific issues like school finance, however, legislators are choosing to attack the courts in ways that could potentially upset the intended balance of power among the three branches of government. Read more

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Brandenburg: Voters Delivered Mandate for Impartial Courts

Although the presidential election underscored deep division in America, voters delivered a true mandate on another front: “[T]hey want their judiciary to be nonpartisan,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg wrote in a Slate commentary.

“Tucked away in last Tuesday’s national election results was a bona fide mandate, on a scale that presidents can only dream of. Voters across the country rejected a multifront crusade to bully judges and politicize courtrooms,” Brandenburg wrote.

He suggested that the election results in court contests and on court-related ballot measures added up to a “bipartisan backlash” against attacks on our courts. In Iowa and Florida,  voters retained state Supreme Court justices despite aggressive and partisan ouster campaigns;  in Arizona, Missouri, and Florida, voters decisively rejected ballot items to “water down” merit-based judicial selection.

Brandenburg’s analysis of a far-reaching  victory on Election Day for defenders of fair and impartial courts was headlined, “Beating Back the War on Judges: Voters rejected the crusade to politicize the courts.”

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Florida Voters Reaffirm Fair and Impartial Judiciary

On Tuesday, Florida voters retained three Supreme Court justices and rejected a proposed ballot measure that would have altered the state’s court system, “affirming the value of an apolitical judiciary,” a Herald-Tribune editorial says.

63 percent of voters opposed Amendment 5, which would have required Senate confirmation of Florida’s Supreme Court justices, and allowed legislators to alter rules for the court system. The amendment was called a power grab by state lawmakers and an example of overreaching, the editorial says (see Gavel Grab).

Floridians also voted to retain Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince. All three received about 67 percent of the vote, the editorial notes. The three had faced an “unprecedented opposition” by interest groups and the Republican Party of Florida.

According to the editorial, each of the justices raised almost $300,000 to finance their campaign. They were supported by lawyers and others in the legal field.

Despite efforts to inject politics into the courts this election, Tuesday “provided an encouraging affirmation of a judiciary free from unnecessary political interference.”

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