TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — This year's gubernatorial race could have even greater implications if a proposed constitutional amendment on Florida Supreme Court appointments is approved.
The Senate voted 26-14 on Thursday to place a question on the fall ballot that could mean an outgoing governor would make appointments to the Supreme Court for vacancies that are created the same day a new governor is sworn in.
The issue is particularly important now because three of the seven high court justices will have to retire the same day in 2019 when the governor is sworn in because they will have reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 during their current six-year terms. That means if Gov. Rick Scott is re-elected, he will be able to replace the justices as he leaves office.
And the justices he would replace — Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince — are part of an ongoing majority that has ruled against Scott and the GOP-controlled Legislature in a line of high-profile cases, including a recent decision to let a medical marijuana amendment go on this year's ballot.
Likewise, if a Democrat is elected in November, he or she would be able to appoint the three justices even if he or she loses a 2018 re-election bid or simply decides not to seek a second term.
Sen. Tom Lee said he sponsored the bill to avoid a potential constitutional crisis if the appointments become an issue, and he noted the constitution doesn't make it clear how appointments should be handled when Supreme Court vacancies occur when there's a change in the governor's office.
Democrats agreed that the way appointments are handled in cases like this needs to be addressed, but they opposed the bill (SB 1188) because they believe if people elect a governor in November, that governor should be the one to appoint the Supreme Court justices for vacancies that begin on inauguration day two months later.
"It's not a partisan issue. We don't know who will be the next governor," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. "I just believe that the incoming governor should have those appointments."
Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith said it's customary for governors-elect to form a transition office and make decisions that lay the ground for their first day in office, and the Supreme Court appointments should be part of that.
Lee, R-Brandon, said he was only trying to solve a problem, and that if his proposal is rejected by voters, he will support putting a question on that ballot during the next election that would call for incoming governors to make the appointments.
The House would still need to approve the measure for it to be placed on the ballot. There isn't a similar House bill, but Speaker Will Weatherford said he is open to the idea.
"I do believe it's something that our body should consider," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report
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