TAMPA — Recently, senior judges, or retired judges who have returned to the bench to help with backlogs, have become a subject of debate in Florida. Foreclosure defense lawyers find the dependence on senior judges concerning because the practice seems to violate multiple constitutional requirements.
By definition, according to the Florida Supreme Court website, a senior judge is used when the court system exceeds its work capacity, which creates a backlog of cases--many in which may be time sensitive. Senior judges are like substitute teachers for the court system, and there is a detailed application process to determine if each senior judge is eligible.
Courts have relied on senior judges, especially since the increase of foreclosure cases caused by the 2008 housing crisis. According to an Oct. 28 in-depth Tampa Bay Times article, Matt Weidner, an attorney in St. Petersburg, is challenging the ubiquity of senior judges before the state Supreme Court, which was filed in April.
"This is a constitutional question," Weidner said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "This transcends foreclosures."
According to the article, there are currently 209 senior judges who must meet certain criteria to work in the courts.
“They must not have been defeated for re-election or failed to win a merit retention vote in their last judicial office before retirement,” the Tampa Bay Times article said. “Once approved, the Supreme Court allows them to serve as judges anywhere in the state. Florida's constitution permits the assignment of retired judges as they are needed. But it specifies that such assignments are supposed to be temporary.”
Weidner also stressed that constitutional requirements state that judges must live in proper jurisdictions and cannot serve after the age of 70.
What concerns Weidner is that the senior judges’ appointments in foreclosure divisions are not temporary and that the judges live outside of the jurisdiction in which they occasionally work. Even more, many appointed senior judges are retired judges from other courts and are over the age of 70.
"Surely this court must recognize that the Florida Constitution does not contemplate, and in fact it expressly forbids, the permanent maintenance of a corps of 'super' senior judges, who sit entirely immune from the constitutional restrictions that every other judge in this state complies with," Weidner said in a written argument to the Supreme Court.
According to the Tampa Bay Times article, Weidner's petition was dismissed eight weeks after he filed it, but he has not given up.
“He sees the frequent use of senior judges as a symptom of the greater problem of an underfunded judiciary,” the article said.
The article presented multiple opinions of the debate. Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta explained in an interview for the article that the last time the legislature approved new trial court judges was in 2006.
“Senior judges help carry the burgeoning case load,” he said in the article. “(They) are a valuable resource. Quite frankly, we would be very hard-pressed without putting them to work."
The in-depth article also presented opinions of senior judge J. Rogers Padgett, who retired from Hillsborough in 2008. Padgett worked 64 days in criminal and civil divisions between September 2015 and August 2016. Padgett, 78, told the Tampa Bay Times that senior judging is a way of keeping a hand in the local legal community.
Padgett also explained in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that if one is good at his or her job and follows the rules, no one complains about a role in the court system.
"I've never heard anybody else complain except Mr. Weidner in St. Pete," he said in the interview. "It's really much ado about nothing."
While this debate continues, there are some changes being made. Mark Stopa, a foreclosure defense lawyer in Tampa, explained that funding for senior judges have been reduced now that foreclosure backlogs are less.