THE VILLAGES – An effort to impose term limits on appellate and state Supreme Court judges in Florida died in the state Senate last month, but opponents vow to fight the idea if it resurfaces in the legislature next year.
This year, a number of other states – Oklahoma, Washington and West Virginia – have also been considering some form of term limits that would affect judicial officers. In the 1990s, voters in Nevada and Mississippi turned down proposals to impose term limits on judges.
“The vast majority of people involved in the (Florida) legal system don’t believe it is necessary,” Christopher Carlyle, chairman of the Florida Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Section, told the Florida Record.
The Florida House passed a bill on a 76-38 vote in February to limit appellate and state Supreme Court justices to 12 years of service, or two six-year terms. Because the bill called for a change in the state’s constitution, a three-fifths vote – or at least 72 “yes” votes – was required for passage in the House.
Senate committees, however, did not review or advance the judicial term limits bill, so the effort essentially died March 11 at the end of the 2016 legislative session.
“The session ended, and the Senate never moved on it at all,” Carlyle said.
And even if it had been passed by lawmakers this year, the term limits proposal would have required approval by 60 percent of Florida voters to take effect.
Carlyle, an attorney with the Carlyle Appellate Law Firm, said opponents feared that passage of judicial term limits would have diminished the quality of candidates applying for judicial posts. In addition to the 12-year limitation for those serving on the appellate and Supreme Court bench, the term limits proposal would have left in place other existing limitations, such as merit retention votes by the public every six years, mandatory retirement at age 70 and oversight in the selection process by the Judicial Nominating Commission.
“Studies show that people who become judges assume they will do it until they retire,” Carlyle said. He added that qualified attorneys might not be so willing to give up lucrative practices in the private sector to pursue term-limited judgeships.
Carlyle stressed that it doesn’t make sense to remove qualified judges after 12 years because they often need time to gain the required experience to perform optimally on the bench. “It does take time for judges to become as effective as they can be,” he said.
Some lawmakers have charged that Republican lawmakers pushed for term limits legislation in response to “liberal” rulings by the state Supreme Court, but Carlyle said he couldn’t speculate on lawmakers’ motives.
Among average voters, he said, judicial term limits didn’t seem to be a high priority.
“Most voters don’t concern themselves too much with the judiciary unless they are involved in it in some way,” Carlyle said.
Different sections of the Florida Bar Association, including the Appellate Practice, Young Lawyers and Business Law divisions, opposed the term limit bills, and Carlyle said that if the bills come up again next year, these groups would likely come out in opposition, perhaps with an effort to educate the public about the possible disadvantages of judicial term limits.
Carlyle also stated in a recent opinion article that, “Imposing term limits on Florida’s appellate judges would move Florida away from the principles set forth by the Founding Fathers to ensure a stable and independent judiciary.”