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Angry With Liberal Court, Florida Lawmakers Propose Judicial Term Limits

| November 3, 2015

Oyez meets oy. (Florida Memory)

Oyez meets oy. (Florida Memory)

Florida Supreme Court justices and appeals-court judges would be limited to two full terms in office under a proposed constitutional amendment approved Tuesday by a House subcommittee. The proposal (HJR 197), which would limit most justices and judges to less than 15 years in office, passed the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on an 8-5 vote. Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, joined the panel’s four Democrats in voting against the measure.

Under the proposal, members of the Supreme Court and District Courts of Appeal would be limited to two full six-year terms, though tenures would likely be longer than that because jurists are appointed to partial terms before facing voters in retention elections. No current member of the bench would be affected, and trial-court judges would not face term limits.

The proposal comes after years of rising anger in the Legislature at members of the Supreme Court. With its more-liberal majority, the state’s highest court has emerged as the only major hurdle in Tallahassee to Republicans’ conservative agenda.

Some Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to defeat three members of the court majority — R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — in the 2012 elections. Had the trio been limited to two full terms, all three would have been barred from running that year.

But Rep. John Wood, a Winter Haven Republican sponsoring the term-limits proposal, said unhappiness with the judges has nothing to do with his measure. Wood this summer called for the impeachment of some of the Supreme Court justices over a redistricting decision striking down the state’s congressional map.

Instead, Wood said, the proposal would allow the state to get a diversity of legal thought on the appellate courts and might encourage those who serve in judicial offices to view their positions differently.

“The approach should be, it is public service. It’s not a career,” Wood told the subcommittee.

Opponents and others raised questions about whether the measure could remove judges who have built up institutional knowledge about the state’s laws and whether it might discourage younger lawyers from pursuing judgeships.

Warren Husband, who appeared on behalf of The Florida Bar, said that anyone becoming has a judge has to “essentially close up your practice, say goodbye to your clients and probably take a pay cut in order to serve as a judge.”

“So going into the proposition, you can’t really reasonably expect to serve as a judge for a few years, come out and pick up your practice where you left off,” Husband said. “Your firm has moved on, your clients have moved on and you’re essentially starting over again.”

The Bar hasn’t formally taken a position yet on the proposed amendment.

Criticism of the proposal crossed ideological lines. Moraitis said he shares some lawmakers’ concerns about judicial overreach.

“That is frustrating to me personally,” he said. “That said, I do feel like an independent judiciary is an important part of our constitutional system and I do feel like the justices’ ability to hold these jobs until they retire is important.”

Speaking to reporters afterward, Wood brushed off concerns about a loss of institutional knowledge.

“There’s extreme value to institutional knowledge. And you know where that institutional knowledge is? Right on that machine that you have there in your hand,” he said, pointing to a reporter’s smart phone. “There is more institutional knowledge in that machine than all the people combined on all of the appellate courts of this state. Knowledge is technology and we have the knowledge. We know what’s been said. We know how to analyze it. We have a lot of people that can do it.”

The proposed constitutional amendment has two more stops before it can go to the full House. It would need to be approved by 60 percent of the lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature and the same share of voters in the 2016 elections to be added to the Florida Constitution.

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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