Sun Sentinel // Editorial
The Florida Constitution is far from most people’s minds most of the time, but it deserves everyone’s close attention for the next 12 months.
Every 20 years, a Constitution Revision Commission is convened to review the state’s founding charter and send proposed amendments to voters. That commission is meeting now and proposing changes that could impact everyone’s lives. Voters will have the final say in November 2018.
Some of the questions so far:
Will it be easier or harder for people to vote?
Will gerrymandering be given new life?
Will restrictions be placed on the right to privacy to undermine abortion rights?
Will public schools be drained of resources to benefit private and religious schools?
Will the courts be insulated from partisan politics?
Will hospitals be allowed to conceal malpractice evidence under the guise of “attorney-client communications?”
These are among the questions framed within the 103 proposals that survived the commission’s first cut, which eliminated all but six of the more than 2,000 proposals from the public. The proposals touch on every plausible subject except improving the regulation of public utilities — a huge oversight.
Florida’s Public Service Commission habitually rubber-stamps rate increases for the electric power industry. Commission members who do otherwise may be shown the door, as happened not so long ago after four commissioners rejected a Florida Power & Light rate increase. That’s because commission membership is tied to the Legislature and state lawmakers count on lavish campaign contributions from the power companies.
The commission should propose an independent Public Service Commission that puts the public first. It’s not too late. Copying a dubious legislative tactic, members have included some blank amendments among the 103. These could morph into almost anything, another reason to pay close attention.
Stepping back a moment, the purpose of the Constitution is to provide for an efficient, responsive and accountable government and assure the people’s rights — most importantly, a meaningful right to vote. We plan to hold the commission to that standard and will encourage the public to do the same.
Here are some of the major issues we’ll be following:
Gerrymandering: The process of allowing politicians to draw political maps that favor incumbents and political parties was dealt an historic blow in 2010 when Florida voters passed the Fair Districts amendments. These amendments require state and congressional districts to be compact, contiguous and drawn to reflect existing boundaries (like city limits) or natural borders (like roads and waterways.) Still, the Legislature’s fingers remain on the computers and taxpayers have had to spend millions of dollars to defend some indefensible back-room shenanigans.
Proposal 80 calls for districts to instead be drawn by an independent commission appointed by the governor, plus the Legislature’s presiding officers and minority leaders. This is a praiseworthy approach, but has three problems. First, as many as five of the 11 seats could go to each of the two major parties. With independents and minor parties now accounting for a third of the electorate, they deserve proportional representation. Second, it would be up to the Florida Supreme Court Nominating Commission to recommend lists of people for appointment to the panel. That’s unacceptable so long as the governor continues to appoint all nine members of the nominating commission. And third, the anti-gerrymandering language is different from what the voters approved in 2010 and the courts enforced. It’s better to stick with what works.
The right to vote: Florida disenfranchises people for life if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony, no matter how nonviolent or long ago. People can have their rights restored by the governor and Cabinet, but they’ve been content to leave more than 1.6 million people in second-class citizenship. Proposals 2, 7 and 21 would make restoration of rights automatic for people who have paid their debt to society, except for those convicted of homicide or sexual felonies. These proposals deserve support.
Closed primaries: An amendment proposed by the 1978 commission — and approved by nearly two-thirds of voters — said a party’s primary should be open to all voters if the winner faces no general election opposition. Since then, the Republican and Democratic parties have foiled its intent by drafting general election write-in opponents who don’t even campaign. Proposal 11 would rid Florida of this dodge. Proposal 62, similar to a North Carolina law, also would allow no-party voters to select a Republican or Democratic primary in which to vote. The two proposals should be merged.
Elected Secretary of State: Today, the secretary of state, who serves as the chief elections officer, is appointed by the governor. Election officials shouldn’t serve partisan ends for the governor or anyone else. But to again elect the secretary of state, as Proposal 14 intends, assures neither competence nor independence. Katherine Harris, the last elected secretary, was no paragon of either virtue. Remember the 2000 presidential contest? Florida would be better served with an independent election commission.
A Fair, Independent Judiciary
Judicial vacancies: In 1972, Gov. Reubin Askew established a model system for appointing people to fill judicial vacancies. The governor and the Florida Bar each appointed three members to each of 26 nominating commissions — one for each of 20 judicial circuits, one for the Florida Supreme Court and one for each of five district courts of appeal. Those six members then appointed three more from the public. The system was corrupted in 2001, however, when the Legislature allowed the governor to appoint all nine members of each commission. Some now act more like political patronage committees than components of an independent judiciary. Proposal 42 would restore the original balance. If the revision commission does nothing else, it should approve this.
Senate confirmation of judges: Proposal 8 is one of several (see also 1, 35 and 41) that would raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75, which makes sense given that life expectancies and vitality are increasing and this cap was set decades ago. But Proposal 8 would unwisely require Florida Senate confirmation of Supreme Court judges and justices of the district courts of appeal. This proposal would make the courts more political, not less. Voters rejected something similar in 2012, preferring today’s merit-retention system. The commission should abide by that recent lesson.
Appoint or elect judges: In 2002, voters were asked whether they wanted all trial judges to be appointed like appellate judges, and similarly run for new terms on their records, rather than against opponents. The vote was a resounding “No!” Proposals 58 and 101 ask the question again. It’s a good one: of all the ways to choose judges, election is usually the worst. Politics, with its hot-button issues and campaign contributions, is incompatible with a fair judiciary. Plus the process prevents candidates from saying much about their views or their opponents. But so is the process of appointing judges flawed, given the one-sided makeup of today’s nominating commissions, which often pick political friends and often dismiss highly qualified Democrats. If the appoint-or-elect issue goes to the voters again, it should stand on its own and not be coupled with other proposals.
There’s much more to say about the commission’s proposals to change the Florida Constitution, but that’s enough for today. Please watch this space in the months ahead. And keep up with the action at www.flcrc.gov.