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Term Limits for Supreme Court and Appellate Judges? Measure Moving Closer to Ballot

| January 24, 2016

florida supreme court justices term limits

GOP lawmakers have been maneuvering to rein in liberal Supreme Court justices for years. (Jason Famularo)

A key House committee Thursday approved a measure that would limit Florida Supreme Court justices and appellate-court judges to two full terms in office, putting a proposed constitutional amendment one step shy of the House floor.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 13-6 along party lines to move the legislation forward. The amendment (HJR 197) would limit most future justices and judges to fewer than 15 years in office, depending on when they are appointed to the bench.

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.

Judges currently have to retire in the election cycle after they turn 70 years old.

Rep. John Wood, a Winter Haven Republican sponsoring the proposal, said it would bring judges in line with other state elected officials, who face limits on their tenures. Many Florida counties also have limits on how long elected officials can serve.

“To make the argument that somehow the judiciary is different just doesn’t seem to reflect how our government is set up,” Wood said.

Republicans also argue that the one way voters can hold bad appellate judges accountable — in merit retention elections, which are essentially referendums on whether jurists should remain in office — doesn’t work. No judge has lost a merit retention election since Florida instituted them in the 1970s.

“It’s not a real ballot,” said Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes. “It’s not a real vote. It’s not real accountability.”

Corcoran, who is set to take over as House speaker after the November elections, has pushed for term limits in a bid to “shake up the status quo” in the judiciary, as he said last year.

Latest ripples from a long battle between GOP lawmakers and a more liberal Supreme Court.

But Democrats saw something different at work, particularly after heated battles between the Supreme Court and the Legislature on redistricting and other legislation. The court has become one of the last institutions to push back against conservative ideas advanced by Republicans who control the state House and Senate. the governor’s office and all three Cabinet positions.

Lawmakers have lost almost all of the redistricting cases decided by the Supreme Court, which has repeatedly sided with a coalition of voting-rights groups. As a result, the maps for state Senate and congressional districts that will be used in November were drawn by the voting-rights organizations and are more favorable to Democrats.

At the core of the more-liberal majority are justices Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis, who were appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, and Justice Peggy Quince, who was appointed by Chiles and then-incoming Gov. Jeb Bush after the Republican was elected in 1998.

“I wonder if in fact term limits will help prevent inappropriate behavior or if in fact part of the intent and the goal here is to sidestep decisions … that we don’t agree with,” said House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “I don’t think the intent here is to clean up judges.”

Opponents also questioned whether the amendment would lower the quality of judges on the courts. Former Supreme Court Justice Major Harding told lawmakers that one of his former colleagues had to take a significant pay cut to become a judge, and likely wouldn’t have done so without the prospect of spending his entire career on the bench.

Harding said some of the lawyers who currently apply for judgeships do so because they aren’t good enough to make more money in private practice.

Critics also question whether term limits would deprive the courts of needed institutional knowledge.

“We already have forced retirements,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami. “We already have the merit-retention process. And now we’re adding term limits to that mix and it chips away, I believe, at the independence of the judiciary, and that’s very concerning.”

It’s not clear how much of a chance the amendment has of going before voters in November. A Senate counterpart (SJR 322) hasn’t been heard by any committee. A constitutional amendment has to be approved by a three-fifths majority in both the House and the Senate and by 60 percent of the voters in a referendum.

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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