The new president of The Florida Bar says the organization is standing by to offer “technical legal” support to the Constitution Revision Commission as it readies to amend the state’s governing document, which could include changes affecting the judicial branch.
“It is too early in the process to focus on any one idea proposed by Florida’s citizens,” he said in an email interview. “But changing our Constitution should be done with caution, because once something is added, it is very difficult to repeal.
“That is why it is critical that we as a bar educate our members and the public so that they are fully informed and engaged in the CRC process.”
But a recent poll by Florida TaxWatch showed “77 percent of Florida voters said they haven’t heard about recent Constitution Revision Commission meetings.” Another 13 percent said they only saw, read or heard “a little” about the commission’s activities.
Higer said the Bar will be “working with its members statewide to educate their communities and encourage engagement in the process,” including a public education program in the fall.
“My hope is that, if Florida’s citizens understand the issues, the work of the CRC will be beneficial to our state,” he said.
The 37-member commission meets every 20 years to review and offer changes to the state’s constitution. Gov. Rick Scott appointed the bulk of its current board, including chair Carlos Beruff, along with picks by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. Attorney General Pam Bondi also is a member.
This is the first commission to be appointed by a Republican majority, leading some to fear that amendments it offers will veer too far to the right. Any amendments it offers go straight to the 2018 statewide ballot, but still must pass with 60 percent approval.
The commission’s “focus will not be on strengthening” the judiciary, said Martha Barnett, a former president of the American Bar Association and 1997-98 member of the CRC.
Barnett said she instead expects an effort to “restrict, narrow and weaken the judicial branch.” She spoke at a panel discussion at The Associated Press’ annual Legislative Session planning meeting this January. “And if that happens, it is to the peril of the life and liberty of the people of this state.”
“The Florida Bar’s focus will be on protecting the courts, to make sure that they are fair, impartial, adequately funded and preserved as the third, separate branch of government,” Higer said. “Anything that impedes the operation of the courts would be a major concern.”
He added Bar leaders already have met with the CRC executive director Jeff Woodburn and general counsel William Spicola—both former members of Scott’s administration.
“The Bar has offered to assist the commission by providing legal subject matter experts on the various issues coming before the commission who may answer questions or provide analysis,” Higer said.
The CRC already has held nine public hearings across the state; the next hearing has not yet been set.