Martin Dyckman: Judiciary term limits? Bad idea

Term limits have spelled disaster for the Florida Legislature – erasing experience, dumbing down the process, and leaving lobbyists even more firmly in control. It was the achievement of people who preferred to weaken government rather than improve it.

Florida being Florida, it figures that some people now propose to do the same to the judiciary. A proposed constitutional amendment, HJR 197  in the House and SJR 322  in the Senate, would prohibit Supreme Court justices and judges of the five district courts of appeal from seeking retention after serving two full consecutive terms. That would be from 12 to nearly 14 years, depending on when they were appointed.

If adopted, it would apply to judges already in office, which smacks of a purge. It bears taking note of what the Supreme Court has done with the Legislature’s gerrymandered voting districts.

The sponsors insist, however, that their motives are purely on principle. Here is the unedited joint statement of Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, and Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven:

“It has become clear that our appellate justices and judges have significant input on our society with their judicial rulings. There are many qualified individuals who are willing to commit to the requirements of public service as an appellate justice or judge. … The diversity of legal philosophy and the rule of law are the foundation of an effective appellate Judiciary. Term limits will enhance the proper role of the Judiciary in our constitutional government. Further, because there are term limits on the Legislative and Executive branches, adding a similar provision on our Judicial branch creates a true balance of power, giving the people of Florida the liberty our forefathers intended.”

This begs a huge question: Why would something that has been bad for the legislative branch be good for the courts?

As I read the statement, they simply want a weaker judiciary.

“I’m a big believer in term limits,” Wood said in a telephone interview. “I’m in public service because of my belief that God has given us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as our individual rights through constitutional government.”

It bears remembering also that the founders provided no term limits for any office and established life tenure for the judiciary.

There is a case for judicial term limits, but this isn’t it. In Washington, there’s discussion of limiting Supreme Court terms to 18 years so as to lower the stakes in the Senate confirmation process and assure each president of making at least two appointments. There is liberal as well as conservative interest in this.

But in Florida, term limits make sense only as an alternative to subjecting appellate judges to the periodic retention elections in which they are increasingly targeted by special-interest lobbies. If the idea is to be taken seriously, it should come only with restoration of the original appointment process. When established in 1971, the judicial nominating commissions were intended to be beyond anyone’s control, but since 2001 the governors have been able to pick – and politicize – each entire nine-member panel.

J. Alex Villalobos, a Miami lawyer, was one of 15 Republicans who voted against that in the House. He doesn’t like the term limits either.

“Bad idea,” he wrote in an email. “This is a solution in search of a problem. Don’t we want the most experienced people running our courts? Today we have members of the Legislature running for Speaker or President and they haven’t even passed one bill. How is that working out?”

He served later in the Senate, helped re-elect three challenged Florida Supreme Court justices in 2012, and is now a national board member of Justice at Stake, which seeks to protect the judiciary from political tampering and will weigh in, no doubt, against this amendment.

The current proposal could be a dress run for the 2017 Constitution Revision Commission, whose appointed members will overwhelmingly reflect the political designs of Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature’s presiding officers.

To gauge where Wood is coming from, it’s noteworthy that he is active in the Assembly of State Legislatures, which was formed in 2013 and aims to persuade the necessary 34 legislatures to force Congress to call a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution.

That has never been seriously attempted, and for good reason. No matter what anyone says, there is no guarantee that the convention wouldn’t run out of control. The U.S. Constitution was written, after all, by people whose instructions were only to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Whose money would elect the delegates?

The Assembly hasn’t perfected its agenda, but its chief cheerleader, the conservative radio host Mark Levin, gives some hints in his book titled “The Liberty Amendments.” Among those he likes: Having the legislatures rather than the voters elect U.S. senators again. His other notions also lurch to the right.

Fancy that: Senate races, run statewide, can’t be gerrymandered. To let gerrymandered legislatures control the U.S. Senate would be to America what the ebola virus is to public health.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bill Prescott


One comment

  • conlawstudy

    October 28, 2015 at 8:06 am

    Is a constitutional amendment required for such a bill? Or could they just pass it by regular statute. Do you think it is constitutional to impose such term limits?

Comments are closed.


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