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House passes judicial term limits in close vote

A judicial term limits initiative that is stalled in the Senate barely passed out of the House Wednesday.

The House approved the measure (HB 197) on a 76-38 vote. Because imposing term limits on appellate judges and justices requires changing the state constitution, it needed three-fifths of the House, or at least 72 votes.

A companion measure (SB 322) has yet to be heard in the Senate with less than three weeks left in the 2016 Legislative Session. Even if it passes both chambers, the proposal still would have to be approved by 60 percent of voters in the next election.

It would limit district court of appeal judges and state Supreme Court justices to 12 years on the bench, or two six-year terms.

House Democrats said the bill was a result of Republican displeasure with the state Supreme Court over what the controlling GOP caucus perceives to be overly liberal interpretations of law by most of its justices.

Republicans have smarted over the court’s ordering that Florida’s congressional and state Senate districts had to be redrawn, saying GOP legislative leaders had unconstitutionally gerrymandered them to favor Republicans.

The judicial term-limits idea also is in an 86-page policy paper written by Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran and other House members that call for a new “legislative culture of purpose.”

And as Democratic state Rep. Jared Moskowitz of Coral Springs reminded his chamber, the House’s GOP leadership has tried to rein in the courts before.

In 2011, then-Speaker Dean Cannon attempted to split the Supreme Court into separate divisions for criminal and civil appeals as political payback for the high court’s 5-2 rejection of three proposed constitutional amendments, all backed by Republicans.

No other state has imposed term limits on its appellate-level judges, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In fact, Nevada voters in 1996 shot down a proposed constitutional amendment “to establish term limits for Nevada justices and judges,”

Appellate judges now can serve virtually unlimited six-year terms, after appointment by the governor, until mandatory retirement at age 70. Such judges must stand every six years for yes-or-no “merit retention votes” that no judge has lost since the system began in the 1970s.

Because of that, said bill sponsor John Wood, a Winter Haven Republican, “it brings up whether that is a valid check and balance,” thus the need for term limits.

But state Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat, said the move would just create a revolving-door judiciary, with new judges being “former politicians with a (law degree) and an ax to grind.”

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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