Florida’s Supreme Court justices and District Court of Appeals judges would be limited to two terms in office under a proposed constitutional amendment that gained initial favor from a Florida House committee Tuesday.
Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, said term limits for the state’s seven justices and 64 appellate judges would ensure “diversity of legal philosophy,” “enhance the proper role of the judiciary,” and “create a true balance of power” with the Legislature and the governor, both already subject to term limits.
Wood is co-sponsoring HJR 197 with Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora.
But some lawmakers, as well as attorneys speaking on behalf of The Florida Bar, fear the proposal could lead to less experienced judges and high turnover on the bench, among other consequences.
In Florida, justices and appeals court judges serve six-year terms. They aren’t reelected as trial court judges are; rather, they go before voters in an up-or-down vote as to whether they should stay in office.
The merit retention system was added to Florida’s Constitution by voters in the 1970s, but no justice has been removed from office because of it. From 1980 to 2014, 42 Supreme Court justices have faced a merit retention vote. All received a majority, allowing them to stay in office.
Similarly, between 2004 and 2014, all 125 appellate court judges who appeared on the ballot were retained.
Wood told reporters that such statistics show the merit retention system “is probably a system that doesn’t work very well.”
I think a lot of people feel that way, that this is a shot across the bow of our judges.
Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg
Even without term limits, though, there’s been turnover on the appellate bench, said Warren Husband, on behalf of The Florida Bar. Since Republican Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, he’s appointed 21 appellate judges — a third of all District Court of Appeals judges statewide, Husband said.
The Bar has not taken a position on the bill; its governing board plans to consider it in December. But the organization has heard concerns from its members, such as how this could lead to a smaller applicant pool for the governor to consider when making appointments for appellate vacancies, because judges have to give up private practice in order to serve.
By the time a justice or appellate judge would be termed out of office, “your firm has moved on, your clients have moved on and you’re essentially starting over. It’s not a prospect that many people find appealing,” Husband said.
“Being a member of the judiciary is not a career move; it’s public service,” Wood said.
Some lawmakers also worry that this proposal is merely a way for the Republican-led Legislature to retaliate against controversial court decisions they’ve disagreed with, such as on redistricting battles.
“What brought about the need for tinkering with the judiciary?” asked state Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg — who, like Wood, is an attorney by trade. “What impropriety can you point to in the existing system of our judiciary where this is necessary?”
Wood “rejected the premise” of Dudley’s question, saying there doesn’t need “to be something wrong to introduce something to make something better.”
Being a member of the judiciary is not a career move; it’s public service.
Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven
But, Dudley told reporters, “I think a lot of people feel that way, that this is a shot across the bow of our judges. . . . It’s the wrong thing to do regarding the crucial independence of our judiciary.”
State Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, agreed, even though he said he still disagrees with recent court actions that might be deemed as legislating from the bench.
“I’m not personally particularly pleased with a lot of the activism in the courts these days,” Moraitis said, without specifying cases. “That said, I feel like an independent judiciary is an important part of our system, and the justices’ ability to hold these jobs until they retire is important.”
Moriatis was the lone Republican on the House Civil Justice Committee to join Democrats in opposing the bill. It passed by an 8-5 vote and now goes to the Appropriations Committee.
The version that passed Tuesday would not affect sitting justices or judges, only those appointed after the amendment would take effect.
Proposed constitutional amendments have a high bar to clear in order to even reach voters for their consideration.
The proposal must receive approval by three-fifths of both the House and Senate: 72 members in the House and 24 in the Senate. Then, if the Supreme Court approves the ballot language, the proposal must get 60 percent approval from voters in order to change the Constitution.
The proposal is one of several reforms advocated by state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, who is designated to be the next House speaker starting in November 2016. The Senate version (SJR 322), sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.