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Florida Top Court Is in Glare of Spotlight

Law: Six of seven justices are Democrats. But legal experts maintain that the judges will be guided by state statute and not by politics.


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The latest player to land center stage in the fight for the presidency of the United States is the Florida Supreme Court, a seven-member panel that is the one branch of government here that is not under the control of the Republican Party.

But legal observers say that the judges, each appointed during the terms of Democratic governors, are guided by Florida law, not politics.

"I would reject out of hand any suggestion that the Florida Supreme Court is either Democrat-oriented or Republican-oriented," said former Supreme Court Justice Alan Sundberg, a Tallahassee lawyer. "I am satisfied to a moral certainty that their party affiliations will not have any effect on the ruling of these cases."

Still, the court's decision Wednesday to turn down Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' request to block the hand recounts of ballots cast in last week's election follows a year in which the court has increasingly been at odds with Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican Legislature. Although Harris said Wednesday night she would not accept any further hand-counted ballots, the state Supreme Court today will consider a request to allow Palm Beach County to continue conducting hand counts of ballots.

Court's Opposition to Legislation Cited

The court previously had struck down one of Bush's vetoes and overturned new legislation on speeding up appeals in death penalty cases. Then the state Legislature tried to change the way the state picks judges. One legislator sought to increase the number of Supreme Court justices. Amid protests from the Florida Bar, the bills died. After the court struck down new crime laws as unconstitutional, one Republican budget leader sent a note to justices on Appropriations Committee stationery, warning that "your decisions continue to be a mockery to the victims and their families."

Republican state Sen.-elect Ken Pruitt, who wrote that note, said he believes that the court's actions Wednesday were motivated in part by the loyalties of Democratic appointees. "I'm sure that has something to do with it. I'm not so naive as to believe some partisanship is not going to take place."

Others disagree.

"I think it's a very strong court and a very courageous court. They will not kowtow to doing the politically correct thing," said Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, a Miami public interest civil rights law firm. Berg should know. He argued and won the case that challenged the pro-death-penalty constitutional amendment written by state legislators and approved by 2.7 million voters.

"The question that seems to be on everyone's mind is: Is this a political court? My answer to that is no," said Donald Weidner, a Jacksonville attorney--and Republican--who has argued before the court. "In my view, the court tries to clearly interpret what the statutes say."

The court appointment process in Florida, unlike the one in California, limits the governor's choices for the state's top court. Candidates must first be screened by a judicial nominating commission, and names are forwarded to the governor for selection.

The late Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, had a hand in appointing six of the seven jurists, turning what was once a conservative bench into a much more liberal one--and giving Chiles, even from the grave, one more chance to needle Jeb Bush, who first ran against him and lost in 1994.

Six of the seven justices are Democrats. Chief Justice Charles T. Wells, a native Floridian, earned one of the three highest grades on the bar examination. Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr., the longest-serving member of the court, was the dean of the Florida A&M University Graduate School. Justice Major B. Harding is a former juvenile court judge. Justice Harry Lee Anstead was a former appellate court judge in Palm Beach County, home of the butterfly ballot controversy. Justice Barbara J. Pariente also hails from Palm Beach, where her husband is an appellate judge. Justice R. Fred Lewis is a Miamian. And Justice Peggy A. Quince, the court's newest member and a former assistant state attorney general, was a joint appointment of Chiles and Bush.

"The Florida Supreme Court is a well-respected group of jurists who will follow the law," said Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Cindy Lederman. "We really are lucky to have these people on the Supreme Court."

Supreme Court judges serve for six years, then their names are listed on the ballot, where voters can reject them on a merit basis. It has never happened.

Nova Southeastern University professor Bruce Rogow, who has argued about 50 cases before the Florida Supreme Court and now represents the Palm Beach County election supervisor, said the court frequently overturns death penalty sentences, tends to favor plaintiffs in civil cases and is protective of the right to choose in abortion.

"It's kind of a Populist court, but very independent and oftentimes surprising," he said.

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