As the Florida Legislature concludes its session and the Constitution Revision Commission, which takes place every 20 years, begins its process to evaluate proposed changes to our state constitution, a dangerous proposal remains that would have far-reaching consequences for our democracy. The proposal, which would impose term limits on appeals court judges, would create immediate and irreparable damage to the sanctity of our third branch of government, the judiciary, which has remained independent and impartial for more than 200 years.
If passed, Florida would be the only state to make such a grave error in political judgment, yet this has not deterred lawmakers from considering such an unprecedented maneuver.
To consider such a sweeping and unnecessary dismantling of the established process would create repercussions that lawmakers likely haven’t weighed.
The judiciary serves as the backstop, the checks-and-balance sounding board, to the executive and legislative branches. The judiciary exists not to write the law, but to interpret it, and the men and women appointed to serve as jurists are tasked with making decisions based on that interpretation.
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Make no mistake, this is one of the most arduous tasks asked of our public servants, and is why experience and expertise matter most.
Term limits would not only make garnering this level of experience an impossibility, it would deter qualified candidates from seeking a position on the bench altogether. In Florida, you can trace the lineage of our great jurists to those who have had influential law careers. With term limits you would lose those men and women from consideration.
Additionally, term limits would have real-world consequences for the businesses and private citizens who rely on our courts to help adjudicate their most pressing conflicts. Consistency and predictability in the interpretation of our laws is critical. Forcing appellate judges off the bench after a few years would only undermine those two important principles.
Another grave concern is the inherent political influence that term limits would bring. Traditionally, the judiciary has not been subject to term limits specifically to insulate the judiciary from politics and partisanship.
By imposing term limits, a clear message would be sent across the state, delivered under the specter of pressure from Tallahassee: Judge wisely or suffer the consequence.
This isn’t to say judges shouldn’t be held accountable. They should, and they are. Through the merit retention process, appellate judges appear on the ballot for retention in nonpartisan elections every six years. Additionally, the Judicial Qualifications Commission, an independent agency established by The Florida Constitution, exists with the sole purpose of investigating alleged misconduct by judges.
Improving our courts system is an admirable and appropriate goal, which all citizens, jurists and elected officials should support. Reckless tinkering with a system that works, and with little regard for the lasting ramifications, is not.
That is why I would urge both the state Legislature and the Constitution Revision Commission to consider the facts carefully and unanimously oppose this and any effort to upend our judiciary.
Aaron S. Podhurst is founding partner of Podhurst Orseck P.A. in Miami. He is a former president of International Academy of Trial Lawyers and The Florida Justice Association.