Saturday, May 24, 2008

Justice's resignation is second in six weeks

Crist choices for judges to remake court

By Brent Kallestad The Associated Press
May 24, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Justice Kenneth Bell on Friday became the Florida Supreme Court's second conservative member in six weeks to unexpectedly retire, giving Republican Gov. Charlie Crist a chance to reshape the seven-member court.

In a letter to Crist, Bell said he will return to his Pensacola hometown for family reasons. His resignation is effective Oct. 1. Bell, 52, has been on the court since January 2003.

Justice Raoul G. Cantero III of Miami also cited personal reasons for his departure, announced April 11.

Crist will have an opportunity to choose four justices in the next two years because two others, Charles Wells and Harry Lee Anstead, must resign in 2009 to comply with a constitutional requirement that judges retire when they turn 70.

"I think it's unprecedented that a governor would have the opportunity to appoint four justices, which would be a majority, within the scope of a year," Tallahassee attorney Stephen Grimes said. Grimes resumed his law career after retiring as a Supreme Court justice when he reached the age he calls "constitutional senility."

Crist will make his picks for each vacancy from three finalists recommended by the Supreme Court Nominating Commission from an initial pool of candidates.

Cantero and Bell were former Gov. Jeb Bush's only appointees and the court's most reliably conservative members. Bush and his predecessor, the late Lawton Chiles, agreed on the appointment of Peggy Quince, who will become chief justice July 1.

The two resigning justices cast the only dissenting votes in one of the most politically charged cases of their Supreme Court careers — a 2006 ruling that struck down Bush's voucher program that let students from failing public schools attend private schools at taxpayer expense.

As in the voucher case, Bell often was in the minority in split decisions, including several that reversed death sentences. He also opposed decisions barring expert witnesses from offering opinions based on consultation with other experts and allowing people to wear clothing with law enforcement insignia as long as it's done without an intent to deceive.

Bell was out of town Friday and not immediately available to answer questions. But he said in a statement released by the court that he was privileged to have served on the bench.

"Indeed, I wish I could continue to serve," he said before adding that "family responsibilities require that I return full-time to Pensacola."

Cantero, 47, and Bell were the youngest members of the Supreme Court and are likely to earn far more than their $161,200 salary in the private sector.

Bell was the 81st justice named to the high court when he was chosen to succeed Justice Leander Shaw. Bell was the first appointed justice from west of Tallahassee since 1917 and the only current justice who had served on the trial bench.

Crist, who was traveling Friday to Arizona to meet with presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, said in a statement that Bell would be remembered for his firm belief in the separation of powers and America's system of checks and balances.

"As a justice, he was always careful to respect the appropriate roles of the judicial, legislative and executive branches," Crist said.

Bell's most notable opinion came last year when he wrote that local governments must get voter approval to sell bonds backed by property taxes generated from redevelopment and improvement programs. The unanimous ruling overturned 27 years of legal precedent.

Within days, though, the Supreme Court agreed to reconsider and then clarified the ruling to say it applied only to future bond issues. The justices also excluded a type of financing widely used to pay for school construction.

In one dissent, Bell sided with two of the high court's liberal members. In the 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled people who plead no contest still have criminal records that can bring harsher punishment for future crimes. In dissent, Bell wrote that no contest doesn't mean "I confess."

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