Florida's freshmen prepare for the ultimate decision

First-time lawmakers may be key in any vote on Election 2000. But who should decide?

Until recently, the biggest issue on rookie Florida legislator Stan Jordan's agenda was education - and how to expand parents' choices without draining money from public schools.

This longtime school-board member was unfazed by angry parents or rafter-rattling debates over school-lunch programs.

But nothing prepared him for Election 2000.

Suddenly, he and Florida's other state legislators - along with its judges, the federal judiciary, and perhaps even the US Congress - are getting sucked into the vortex of deciding the next leader of the free world.

Ultimately the US Supreme Court, which hears arguments on the issue today, may spare Representative Jordan and others from having to weigh in. But the election episode has triggered questions about whether state legislatures are sufficiently prepared for such a major task.

More broadly, it has sparked debate about which branch of government - legislative or judicial - is best equipped to handle sensitive electoral disputes.

While having the power to pick a president may be alluring, many in Florida have also discovered that the national scrutiny and profound implications involved in such a decision are daunting - like being forced to march across hot coals.

"At first everybody here was thinking, 'We're going to be world famous,' and they had visions of Washington jobs dancing in their heads," says Lance deHaven-Smith, a political scientist at Florida State University in Tallahassee. But now, legislators such as Republican House Speaker Tom Feeney - who led the charge to inject the Legislature into the process - are "probably worried they'll be the new Katherine Harris," he says, referring to Florida's controversial secretary of state.

This week, if the US Supreme Court doesn't bring finality to the drama, the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature may appoint a fresh slate of electors to represent the state in Electoral College voting, thus virtually guaranteeing George W. Bush's victory.

Critics see it as a brazenly partisan power play by newly dominant Florida Republicans. GOP leaders say they're simply ensuring that the state's voters are represented in the Electoral College. And, they say, they have to impose some clarity on a process that seems to be mired in legal battles.

Courts vs. legislatures

The drama highlights the question of which branch of government - either at the state or federal level - is best equipped to decide such issues in a way that seems the most fair.

"In terms of public acceptance and objectivity, we're better off having the courts resolve these kinds of issues," says Professor deHaven-Smith. "When they rule, they have to give very specific reasons - and they have precedent constraining them" from doing anything too wild.

Indeed, the public generally trusts courts to inject a dose of nonpartisan objectivity into such partisan duels. They can add legitimacy to whichever side they rule for. It's perhaps especially true for the US Supreme Court, which is seen as the ultimate national arbiter.

Yet dangers exist for those in robes who get involved. "Courts risk damaging their credibility if they get entangled in these cases," says Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. If they're seen as being partisan, it can hurt them long term because the only thing they have to rely on for their credibility "is their integrity and moral suasion."

Legislatures, on the other hand, are overtly political. Therefore, some argue, they should make the call. In a collective sense, the people of Florida "clearly elected their Legislature, so you could argue that it's the legislature that best reflects the will of the people," says Professor Jarvis. The same holds true for the US Congress. And besides, "people don't expect much objectivity from legislators."

But if legislatures are to be the arbiters, then the question quickly arises about their capacity to make such important national decisions.

Government 101

On Friday, when the Florida House began its session to appoint electors, House Speaker Feeney had to interrupt debate for some Government 101 lessons. That's because a majority of the members are freshmen - a result of the state's term-limit laws. In his best professorial manner, Feeney intoned, "For those of you who are new, the difference between a bill and a resolution is...."

But Jordan, the new Republican legislator, says the freshmen are ready if need be.

"Think of us as an expansion team," he says. "We're new, but we're ready to play ball." His greatest hope, however, is that "there's a self-correction in the system" - so he can get back to the issue of education.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.