Reject term limits for high-level judges in Florida

Tampa Bay Times

The Legislature is considering a bill to limit the terms of Florida’s Supreme Court justices, who meet in this building in Tallahassee.
The Legislature is considering a bill to limit the terms of Florida’s Supreme Court justices, who meet in this building in Tallahassee.

Taking a hard swipe at an independent judiciary, the Florida House has passed a constitutional amendment that would ask voters to impose term limits on appellate judges and state Supreme Court justices.

This is retribution masquerading as reform, and it would produce judges who are less qualified, less independent and less likely to withstand political pressure. The Senate should reject this blatant assault on the courts.

The measure would be the first of its kind in the country and force appellate judges and justices out of office after 12 years. For judicial term limits to become part of the Florida Constitution, the amendment would have to pass the Senate and then win at least 60 percent of the vote in the November 2018 general election.

There is no doubt that this is a partisan attack on a nonpartisan branch of government, and the Republican rhetoric about state judges serving for life glosses over the details.

First, the retirement age for justices and appellate judges is 70 years old. Second, they also face merit retention votes by the voters every six years.

Those are largely formalities, but those votes are designed to remove judges who are unethical or have otherwise proven themselves unfit — not to oust judges because their legal decisions may be unpopular.

Long-term appointments bring stability, consistency, and institutional knowledge to the highest levels of the courts and promote the very independence Republican lawmakers find so irritating. (Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this editorial, due to an editing error, this paragraph was mistakenly attributed to Florida Bar President William Schifino Jr.)

Yet after a string of legal losses, House Republicans have decided the courts have become too “activist.” Recent state court rulings have invalidated GOP-driven laws covering workers’ compensation, abortion rights, capital punishment, and redistricting.

So now Republican lawmakers are complaining that the legislative branch of government has lost too much power to the judicial branch. Interesting.

The term-limits amendment isn’t their only weapon. Last month, the House passed a bill, HB 301, on a party-line vote that would require the Florida Supreme Court to annually list for the Legislature each case where it has not made a decision for 180 days and explain why — as if justices have to defend decisions to lawmakers across the street from the Supreme Court.

The Florida Bar, business interests and lawyers on the right and left oppose term limits for appellate judges and justices.

They convincingly argue that the brightest trial judges and lawyers will not seek appointments to the appellate bench if they could be pushed out before age 60 and have to start over with no clients or law practice.

A constant churn of appellate judges because of term limits also makes no sense. We agree.

For the damage term limits can cause look no further than the Legislature, where eight-year term limits have created a lack of institutional knowledge and constant campaigning.

Florida’s court system already has become too politicized by the partisan manipulation of the judicial nominating commissions that screen judicial candidates for the governor to consider.

Term limits for appellate judges and Supreme Court justices in Florida would make that situation even worse, and the Senate should reject this constitutional amendment.

This editorial was originally published by the Tampa Bay Times.