Florida group reports increase in special-interest spending

By Tricia Erickson | Feb 15, 2017

Florida Supreme Court chamber   Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A report by the Florida Access to Justice Project reveals the increase in special-interest spending in higher-court races and makes recommendations to ensure residents a fair justice system.

According to the report’s findings on Daily Business Review, special-interest spending more than doubled in the last decade and topped $56.4 million in state higher court races across the country in 2011 and 2012.

The Florida Access to Justice Project released the report to draw attention to the political influences in the court and the need for judicial reform to better serve the residents of Florida.

“It is critical that the judiciary remain insulated from political and special interests,” the report stated. “These influences negatively impact the diversity and objectivity of our courts and Floridians’ access to fairness and justice.”

In the 2012 Florida Supreme Court retention races, about $5 million was spent — with 70 percent of that amount coming from outside groups, according to the report.

Damien Filer with the Florida Access to Justice Project emphasized the growing concerns with political influence in the courts and climate surrounding the role of the courts.

“Our system of checks and balances was designed in such a way that the role of courts is to ensure that actions by the executive and legislative branches are constitutional,” Filer told the Florida Record. “This separation of powers is necessary to protect our rights against any over-reaching by the other branches.”

The group is also voicing opposition to legislation recently introduced in Florida that would give lawmakers the ability to strike down a court ruling with a two-thirds majority vote.

The report claimed that Florida Legislature “has repeatedly attacked the courts … because of court decisions that have thwarted the legislature’s attempts to amend our state constitution in unconstitutional ways.”

According to FloridaPolitics.com, the legislation proposed by Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, would allow Florida lawmakers with a two-thirds majority to overturn a judicial ruling that found any state law or legislation act unconstitutional. The proposal is waiting for the new 2017 legislative session to begin in March and if it passes, the proposal would go to the voters.

“The Legislature can't just decide to overturn the courts and make their acts constitutional,” Flier said. “That would be the equivalent of the governor enforcing a veto even if the Legislature overrode it. Separation of powers and checks and balances between the three branches of government may frustrate some leaders, but that's no justification for upending this cornerstone of American government."

In addition to highlighting dramatic increased special-interest spending and influence in judicial races, the report made nine recommendations for improving the current status of Florida’s courts, which includes lengthening the terms for judges. The group argues that lengthening the terms will reduce the frequency of retention races and decrease the influence of special interest spending.

The group also advocates reforms such as increasing opportunities for community involvement, increasing diversity among the judges to reflect Florida’s diverse population, and requiring judicial-performance evaluations.

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