Speaker Dean Cannon's proposal to create separate criminal and civil divisions of the Florida Supreme Court passed the House 79-38 on April 15, 2011, but not before Democrats and Republicans argued over an alleged purpose of the court expansion -- the handling of death penalty cases.
Cannon wants to expand the Supreme Court from seven to 10 members, and then separate them into two five-member panels. One panel, including the three most senior judges (appointed by late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles) would serve on the criminal side, while the four justices appointed by Republicans would serve on the civil division. Gov. Rick Scott would appoint nominees to fill the other three slots.
Republicans argue the expansion is needed to help settle death penalty cases more expeditiously -- 393 people currently are waiting on Florida's death row.
"Unreasonable delays plague state post-conviction review, and there is little Florida's current Supreme Court can do to improve or streamline the process," Cannon, R-Winter Park, wrote in an April 14 op-ed article in USA Today. (We previously checked -- and rated True -- Cannon's claim that more people die on death row of natural causes than are executed.)
But Democrats say the appeals process isn't necessarily what's slowing down death penalty cases.
In remarks on the House floor, Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said the governor's office is as much, if not more, to blame.
"The proponents argue that the Florida Supreme Court should be split because it will allow them to expeditiously resolve capital cases that have languished in the court," Thompson said. "The facts are the Florida Supreme Court has a capital caseload that is lower this year than last. The facts show that approximately 40 persons on death row have had all of their appellate review completed and await only the governor's signature on a death warrant to end the case.
"Perhaps the proponents should pass legislation requiring a governor to sign a death warrant within 60 to 90 days after all appellate review has been denied, if their concern is 'disposing' of death penalty cases."
Are 40 people, more than 10 percent of the current case back-log, waiting on the governor to sign a death warrant?
After checking with several agencies, including the Supreme Court and the Department of Corrections, we were directed to the state Commission on Capital Cases, a body created in 1997 by the Legislature to provide oversight on the administering of death penalty cases. Legislators and judges serve as members of the commission, which also has a full-time staff. (Interestingly, another bill passed by the House would eliminate the commission.)
The commission keeps a list of what it calls warrant-eligible inmates, said commission executive director Roger Maas. He explained to us that the list covers inmates who have exhausted both their state and federal appeals.
That makes the next step toward execution the signing of a death warrant and setting of an execution date, Maas said.
A note: For the most part, the governor has discretion over issuing death warrants. In other words, he picks who and when. In fact, the governor can sign a death warrant for any prisoner sentenced to death, though those warrants likely will be stayed until the state and federal appeals process is complete. And the signing of a death warrant can and often does trigger potential additional appeals -- though if no new information is presented, the appeals are more delay tactics. (The Supreme Court can issue a death warrant, based on an application from the attorney general's office, if the governor has committed an "unjustified failure" to issue a warrant).
Maas provided us with his warrant-eligible inmate list as of April 7, which you can see for yourself here.
According to the commission, 47 inmates currently have exhausted their appeals and the next step is for the governor to sign a death warrant.
The list includes Gary Alvord, for instance, who has been on Florida's death row since April 1974 and is awaiting a death warrant. Alvord escaped a Michigan mental hospital and wound up in Tampa, where he killed three women. Alvord, who turned 64 on Jan. 10, has been awaiting execution for 37 years.
But many experts say he will never be executed. Alvord has a history of mental illness and has been declared mentally incompetent by several courts.
Since 1979, 69 people have been executed -- a rate of a little over two per year.
Craig Waters, a spokesman with the Florida Supreme Court, said there is no limit to how many death warrants a governor can sign. But governors have signed just a handful a year despite the backlog of inmates awaiting execution.
Gov. Charlie Crist signed six death warrants in his four years in office. Gov. Jeb Bush signed 24 death warrants in the preceding eight years. Of those 30 inmates, 26 were executed. Of the other four, two inmates had their death sentences vacated, one died while awaiting execution, and one inmate's execution was stayed by Bush.
Scott has yet to sign a death warrant since taking office.
During arguments against a proposal to expand and split the state Supreme Court, Thompson said "approximately 40 persons on death row have had all of their appellate review completed and await only the governor's signature on a death warrant to end the case." According to the Commission on Capital Cases, the number sits at 47. We rate this claim True.