TALLAHASSEE – A constitutional amendment to impose 12-year term limits on state Supreme Court and appellate judges passed the Florida House by a bare one-vote margin on March 30, but it will now go before senators who have voiced skepticism about judicial term limits.
“It’s something important to the House and the House speaker, so we’ll certainly give it every consideration on the Senate side,” Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart) said in a recent press briefing. “I know some senators have raised concerns that it may inadvertently create a situation where you have appellate court judges having in the back of their mind that eventually they are going to get back into private business. And I think that we obviously want our judges at all levels of the court focused entirely on the work before her or before him.”
Negron refused to say whether he would support judicial term limits.
William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, argued against the proposal in a recent letter to Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’Lakes).
“I hope this will not be heard in the Senate because this is such a bad idea,” Large told the Florida Record.
In prepared comments provided to the Record, Large said the proposal would discourage the best attorneys from seeking judgeships. That’s because they would likely have difficulties when trying to re-enter the private sector later in their careers once they are termed out.
“After 12 years on the bench, these lawyers will have difficulty rejoining firms and rebuilding their practices,” said Large, who also sees government attorneys and lawyers who work for corporate clients being more attracted to bench posts under term limits.
Large’s Justice Reform Institute works with the state’s businesses to battle civil litigation excesses and advocates for fair and stable legal practices in Florida.
The term-limits proposal was authored by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan (R-Mount Dora), who has said the proposed amendment was drafted because many judges are not accountable under the current system, which requires retention votes for the judges every six years. In addition, many judges are currently abusing their powers and legislating from the bench, she said during the debate over the proposal.
House Speaker Corcoran strongly endorsed the amendment, which passed by the required three-fifths margin, but by a single vote. If approved, it would go before voters in November 2018.
"It was said in debate today that all the special interest groups have lined up against term limits,” Corcoran said after the House vote. “That tells you we are doing what is right. And neither special interest hand-wringing nor political influence will stop the House from doing what is right. It boils down to this - we believe that no government job should be for life."
But many attorney organizations in Florida, including the State Bar, oppose the idea of term limits for judges at all levels of the Florida judicial system.
“Term limiting judges greatly concerns the Florida Bar and should concern all Floridians,” State Bar President William Schifino Jr. said in a prepared statement to the Record. “The three, co-equal branches of our state government require that we have a fair and impartial judiciary free from political influence or persuasion. We also need judges who have the experience and temperament to deal with the many complex issues that confront our citizens today.”
Large said Florida would be the first state to impose judicial term limits if the proposal eventually gains voter approval. “In fact, similar efforts to impose term limits on appellate judges have been overwhelmingly defeated in several states, including Colorado, Mississippi and Nevada,” he said.
Under the plan, judges would be term-limited out of their positions just as they reached their prime in terms of understanding complex criminal and consumer litigation, according to Large. That would lead to a less-experienced judiciary overall and possibly more reversals of judicial decisions, he said.
Large also argues that placing term limits on state legislators has not fulfilled the original intent of curbing corruption and careerism. Instead, the more inexperienced lawmakers have become more dependent on legislative staffs and lobbyists, he said.
“When term limits pushed out experienced legislators after eight years, one unintended consequence was that lobbyists and unelected legislative staff have taken a greater role in supplying legislators with institutional knowledge,” Large said.
As an alternative, he has suggested that the legislature consider involving more elected officials in the process of nominating judicial candidates and having the state Senate confirm all judges and justices, as is done in the federal system.