The Impact of National Politics on State Courts: Florida after Election 2000

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The Impact of National Politics on State Courts: Florida After Election 2000*

Election 2000 brought national attention to the state of Florida and publicly exposed tensions between the state's elected branches and its judiciary. Our research asks whether the elected branches, specifically the legislature, used this national political event to threaten the judicial branch and push through a court reform agenda during the 2001 legislative session. Focusing on several variables, including judicial selection, court staffing, the court's budget, and proposals for constitutional revision, our research uncovers some legislative success in reshaping the state's judiciary in the aftermath of Election 2000, but we also find that significant modifications to the court system were largely unsuccessful.

Much of the literature on judicial independence has focused on the national court system and its judges, who enjoy lifetime tenure. The issue of independence is even more important for state courts that are, by their nature, in a more tenuous position. Many states tie judges to the electorate or to elected politicians through various methods of judicial selection, and state judges often serve for limited terms capped by mandatory retirements. State judges also enjoy less latitude in constitutional interpretation than their federal counterparts because they are constrained by constitutions that are exhaustive in detail as well as readily changed. One scholar has suggested that state courts face the "impairment of judicial independence by the threat of political retaliation" when they invoke "broad constitutional terms as the basis for the appropriation... of power over heavily contested political issues" (Carrington, 1998:100). And what could be more political or more heavily contested than the election for president of the United States in the year 2000?

The role of the Florida courts in the memorable national election of November 2000 may well have marked a defining moment for this state's judiciary. Called upon to sort out the balloting fiasco, the Florida Supreme Court, some lower courts, and even individual judges who served on county election boards were fully forced into the arena of partisan politics. Tensions between the judiciary, an institution inherently slow to change, and a rapidly evolving conservative legislature had simmered below the surface since the Republicans first took control of the state senate in 1994. Those tensions only increased as Republicans secured full control of the legislature in 1996 and took over the governorship in 1998. The judiciary, particularly the Florida Supreme Court, had already sparred with the elected Republican majority on issues like the death penalty, abortion, and tuition vouchers. Some members of the legislature had fired back at the courts during the 2000 legislative session by introducing at least six bills that could have seriously impacted the judiciary, although none were taken very seriously.

The Florida courts' involvement in Election 2000 had the potential to further inflame relations between the three branches. But as legislators returned to Tallahassee for the start of the 2001 legislative session, Republicans tried to paint an image of the two branches peacefully coexisting. Senator Locke Burt (R-Ormond Beach), chair of the senate judiciary committee, asserted that there was no Republican vendetta to punish the judiciary for its election rulings despite suggestions to the contrary. "What the press has tried to imagine is a Republican attack on the judiciary. It just isn't there" (Blumner, 2001). But did the events of Election 2000 provide the proverbial " last straw" and institutional will for the Florida legislature and governor to curtail the power and independence of the Florida courts?

Our study investigates what Election 2000 meant to the constitutional balance of power in Florida with respect to the courts. By examining legislation proposed and adopted during the regular legislative session that met between March and May 2001, we assess the extent to which the judicial branch was threatened or transformed. …