Speeding up Florida’s execution machinery is a top priority for state House Speaker Dean Cannon. Cannon’s efforts to achieve that goal have included abolishing a commission that oversees death penalty cases and trying to reorganize the state’s Supreme Court.
Most unexpected in the 2011 legislative session was the abolishment of the Florida Commission on Capital Cases. The agency, which compiles detailed case status information on death row prisoners, maintains a website that has attracted 800,000 visitors. The Commission also provides Continuing Legal Education (CLE) classes for capital case defense attorneys, and supplies the governor’s office with information about condemned prisoners who have exhausted their appeals and are eligible for death warrants.
The Commission on Capital Cases had five employees and a $370,000 budget. At a May 5, 2011 Appropriations Committee meeting on a budget conforming bill late in the legislative session, the Committee passed a Cannon-sponsored provision to repeal the state law that created the Commission, thereby abolishing the agency. There were no previous discussions or hearings on the provision.
Cannon’s plan to speed up executions – he noted that more death row prisoners die of natural causes than by lethal injections – also included a reorganization of the Florida Supreme Court. His goal was to increase the number of justices to 10. The Court would then split into divisions of 5 justices each for civil and criminal cases, which presumably would streamline death penalty appeals. His plan further called for eliminating the judicial selection process and centralizing it with the governor.
The House passed Cannon’s Supreme Court plan, but the Senate refused. While Cannon’s attempt to reorganize the state Supreme Court has become political fodder, the Judicial Nominating Commissions will be cleared out to make room for candidates who are selected by Governor Rick Scott and confirmed by the Senate.
The rhetoric behind Cannon’s Supreme Court reorganization plan may be more motivated by politics. The Court removed three legislatively-sponsored constitutional amendments from the ballot in 2010, and will review legislative redistricting plans in 2012. Some officials have pointed out that Florida’s death penalty process is not, in fact, being held up by the Supreme Court.
State Senator Ronda Storms, a former Commission on Capital Cases board member, noted that the governor already has a list of 47 prisoners ready for execution upon his signing of their death warrants.
Despite increasing caseloads and declining budgets, Florida’s courts are clearing out criminal cases, including death penalty cases. “We think the facts that are out there are good facts for the courts,” said State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner, whose office issues studies on the efficiency of Florida’s court system. “Those numbers speak for themselves.”
Meanwhile, Governor Scott signed the bill abolishing the Commission on Capital Cases in June 2011. Interestingly, the end of the Commission also means the end of the CLE courses the Commission provided to attorneys and judges, which may lead to legal challenges in death penalty cases that further delay executions.
“That’s the irony in the whole thing,” said state Rep. Jim Waldman. “It’s the opposite of what [Cannon] wants to effectuate by getting rid of [the Commission]. This is the one commission specifically devoted to dealing with death penalty issues and the expeditious administration of justice. By doing away with this commission you’re saying you’re not really concerned” with that issue.
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