State Politics

Florida could be the first state in the nation to put term limits on judges

Florida Supreme Court justices would be subject to a 12-year term limit under a proposal that passed the House.
Florida Supreme Court justices would be subject to a 12-year term limit under a proposal that passed the House. Tampa Bay Times

Justices on the Florida Supreme Court and judges on state appellate courts would be forced out of office after 12 years under a constitutional amendment that the Florida House barely passed Wednesday.

The measure, which would be the first of its kind in the country, has been criticized by business groups, conservative and liberal lawyers. To make it into the state Constitution, it needs to pass the Florida Senate, where it has not been given a single committee hearing, and gain 60 percent of voters’ support.

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, says the amendment (HJR 1) would give greater accountability to the judicial branch. Supreme Court justices and judges serve until they are 70 years old and face voters every six years in a yes-or-no merit retention election.

Today, we have a judiciary that is legislating from the bench.

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora

“Today, we have a judiciary that is legislating from the bench,” Sullivan said. “It is not accountable to the people.”

Merit retention elections don’t provide enough accountability, she said, because no justice has ever been thrown out of office by the voters, despite “great efforts” to do so. That is a reference to the 2012 election, when conservative groups actively campaigned against three members of the Florida Supreme Court’s liberal bloc, even airing television ads.

It passed 73-46 in the House, where it needed a 72-vote super majority. Six Republicans, including Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, joined Democrats to vote against the measure, even though it is a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Democrats said term limits will lead to a lack of expertise on the bench, high turnover, and inconsistent rulings.

What’s more, they call the effort to impose a 12-year limit a politically motivated attack on the courts after rulings that struck down decisions by the Republican-led Legislature.

It is shortsighted, and it’s punitive in its attempt to injure a coequal branch of government, all because they had the gall to actually do their job.

Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach

“It is shortsighted, and it’s punitive in its attempt to injure a coequal branch of government, all because they had the gall to actually do their job,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.

Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, whose father Leander Shaw Jr. sat on the Supreme Court, said the writers of the U.S. and state constitutions gave judges life terms because they need years of experience to decide important cases of “life, death and the president,” a reference to the 2000 presidential election.

But Corcoran and other Republicans have accused the courts, especially the Supreme Court, of legislating from the bench. In recent years, the courts have blocked a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for abortions, workers compensation laws and district maps for Congress and the state Senate, which the court said benefited incumbents.

To Corcoran, outspoken opposition to term limits from legal organizations on both sides of the political aisle is good.

“That tells you we are doing what is right,” he said in a statement. “And neither special interest hand-wringing nor political influence will stop the House from doing what is right. It boils down to this — we believe that no government job should be for life.”

Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, President Trump's choice for Supreme Court justice, adheres to originalism, a judicial approach that would deeply affect how he would make decisions from the bench.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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