Judicial term limits are a bad idea for Florida

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.

The separation of powers created by the U.S. and Florida constitutions guarantees proper checks and balances in government. This sacred doctrine is currently under attack by proposed state legislation that seeks to establish term limits for Florida Supreme Court justices and appellate judges.

This is a bad idea that is politically motivated and should be defeated. Our state needs experienced jurists to interpret the laws and maintain our freedoms and rights as individuals, and as business and property owners.

Founding Father John Adams wrote in 1776:

“The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that.”

The bill proposing an amendment to the Florida Constitution to limit the state’s Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges to two six-year terms that is now advancing through the Legislature serves to undermine this sacred principle of American governance.

It is a politically motivated measure proposed by the Florida lawmakers after the state’s Supreme Court struck down the Legislature’s new congressional and state senate district maps, forcing it into two special sessions to redraw voting district lines.

The proposed measure is a classic example of a solution looking for a problem. Term limits have proven to be effective to maintain a check on the great power of the executive branch by limiting a Florida governor to two consecutive terms.

However, for the judges and justices of our state’s highest courts who do not wield such a level of power, it would lead to disastrous results and open the door to greater legislative and gubernatorial influence over the judiciary.

In our state’s highest courts, Florida residents and businesses need the most experienced, knowledgeable and committed jurists. These members of the highest offices in our state’s judiciary have unselfishly forgone lucrative careers in the private sector to answer the call of public service.

They hear cases involving highly complex business, consumer and criminal matters, and their level of proficiency and expertise grows through experience as well as via the considerable time and money that the state’s court system dedicates to judicial education.

Florida residents, businesses, property owners and attorneys need to maintain the consistent quality and forethought of the decisions of our judges and justices that they have grown accustomed to for generations. The state’s current system enables voters to approve or reject the retention of judges, who must leave office after the mandatory retirement age of 70.

The system is not perfect, as practically all sitting judges are retained by the voters in judicial elections with typically low voter turnout, but it is much better than a system in which our best judges and justices would be barred from continuing to serve after they complete two full consecutive terms.

No other state has imposed judicial term limits such as those that are being considered under the Florida bill, and ballot measures for judicial term limits have been defeated in the past by the voters of Colorado, Nevada and Mississippi.

The reason it has never gained acceptance is because most consumers and businesses understand the damage that it would do to a judiciary, not to mention the fact that there are always politically charged motivations behind these measures that many see as a clear affront to one of the founding tenets of the U.S. Constitution.

The legislative session ends on March 11. If this bill passes both the Florida House and Senate by a three-fifths majority, the proposed amendment to the state’s constitution would go before the voters in this year’s general election ballot on Nov. 8.

Lawmakers should rise above politics and do what is right for the court system, as well as Florida residents, businesses and property owners, by rejecting this bill.

Attorney Ervin A. Gonzalez is a partner with the Coral Gables law firm Colson Hicks Eidson, and formerly served as the statewide chairman of The Florida Bar’s Judicial Nominating Commission and as the president of the Dade County Bar Association.