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Eric Lesh and Mark Ferrulo: Another legislative power grab for control of the courts

After the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the partisan maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature violated the Fair Districts amendments, Rep. John Wood, R-Polk, called for impeachment proceedings against the justices.

Now, Wood and his colleagues in the House are asking the people of Florida to believe that the judicial term-limits bill passed in the House has absolutely nothing to do with payback. Don’t buy it.

The truth is the judicial branch is the only thing that can prevent the governor and the Legislature from enacting unconstitutional laws. There is perhaps nothing the leadership of the House would like more than to chip away at this independent check on their agenda.

And that’s exactly what they have done.

In recent years, the Legislature has repeatedly attacked the courts in an effort to weaken judicial independence and starve the third branch of government of necessary funding. The judicial term-limits bill is just the latest in a series of naked power grabs. Casting the legislation as a “court-improvement measure” belies both reality and history.

In 2011, Republicans in the Legislature failed to push through legislation to pack the Florida Supreme Court with three new Justices by splitting the court into two tribunals. Just like the term-limits amendment, the proposal just happened to increase turnover and give the Republican governor more judicial appointments.

In 2012, the Florida Republican Party, with an assist from the Koch brothers’ Super Pac and Americans for Prosperity, launched an unprecedented campaign urging voters to toss out three Florida Supreme Court justices during a routine retention election.

Had they succeeded, Gov. Rick Scott could have appointed their replacements. But voters saw through the expensive attack ads, and the justices kept their jobs. That same year, Florida voters also rejected Amendment 5, which would have reduced the threshold needed for the Legislature to repeal a state Supreme Court decision, from the two-thirds majority to a simple majority.

In 2014, the leaders of the Legislature also failed to get voter support for their proposal to allow an outgoing governor to fill judicial vacancies before they occurred. The power play behind the amendment would have given Scott another crack at replacing the same three justices who were targeted in the anti-retention campaign on his way out of office in 2019.

Now, this most recent proposal, which would limit Florida Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges to two six-year terms, is being sold as necessary to ensure “accountability.” But what the bill sponsor and leadership of the House who voted in favor really seek is a little less accountability to the law and a little more accountability to their partisan interests.

Enough is enough.

The latest term-limits bill has nothing to do with improving the quality of justice and everything to do with consolidating power.

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Eric Lesh, Fair Courts Project Director for Lambda Legal and Mark Ferrulo, Executive Director of the Progress Florida, are members of the Florida Access to Justice Project.

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