Term limits for Supreme Court, appeals judges clear the House, if barely

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A proposed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on justices of the Florida Supreme Court and state appellate judges squeaked through the Florida House Wednesday after a majority defeated a series of unfriendly — even sarcastic — amendments.

HJR 1, by Eustis Republican Jennifer Sullivan, won 73 “Yes” votes — one more than the three-fifths support it needed. Forty-six members voted “No.”

The measure would limit judges of the district courts of appeal and justices of the Supreme Court to 12 years in office.

Sullivan argued Florida’s merit-retention system for appellate judges isn’t accountable because the voters have never tossed out a judge.

A number of Democrats argued the real motivation was to rein in a judiciary that has thwarted legislative initiatives.

The measure is “short-sighted and punitive, an “assault on a co-equal branch of government,” Democrat Evan Jenne said.

“And the only sin of that co-equal branch is providing a check and balance when the Legislature runs afoul of the Constitution — which, unfortunately, happens more than even I would like to admit,” Jenne said.

Following the vote, Jenne said he learned the House leadership would move for a final vote only when he arrived on the floor. Democrats opted not to try to block the move, reasoning the measure won’t pass the Senate. A companion measure, SJR 482, has yet to be heard in committee.

“It’s a dead bill,” Jenne said. “We’ve wasted enough time on a dead bill that isn’t going anywhere.”

Tampa Democrat Sean Shaw described the abuse directed at his father, the late Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw, while running for retention following an abortion ruling. The family received racist material in the mail, and pictures of dead babies.

“I’m being told on this floor. ‘That’s not accountable.’ That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Republicans defended the proposal. Larry Metz, an attorney from Yalaha, argued that appellate judges set policy and need to be held accountable.

“I support term limits for the appellate bench for the same reason I support them for this House and Senate,” he said. “Many times, they go way beyond the case or controversy in question, and they offer policy solutions to a problem that they think is constitutional.”

“This isn’t about going against the judicial branch of government,” Sullivan concluded. “It is about ensuring that power lies with the people.”

If the measure wins a Senate supermajority, it would become a constitutional amendment upon approval by 60 percent of the voters.

Representatives of an array of legal groups — including the Florida Bar, the Florida Board of Trial Advocates and the Florida Justice Reform Institute — warned in committee that it would discourage bright lawyers from seeking the bench and interfere with judicial independence.

In a written statement released shortly following the vote, House Speaker Richard Corcoran suggested such unified opposition was a bug, not a feature.

“It was said in debate today that all the special interest groups have lined up against term limits,” Corcoran said.

“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.”

The Florida Justice Reform Institute issued its own statement.

“Term limits are not going to ensure the best judges are on the bench,” said William Large, the group’s president.

“Instead they will only ensure that the best and brightest Florida lawyers rarely apply, and even when good judges manage to end up on the bench, they will be kicked off just as they are gaining the institutional knowledge and experience that make for great judges.”

Sullivan warded off 13 of amendments by Jared Moskowitz, a Democratic attorney from Coral Springs, that frankly made a mockery of her proposal.

Moskowitz proposed extending Supreme Court terms to 28, then 24, then 20 years, then 16, then eight.

To extend term limits to trial judges. To require ex-judges to publicly disclose their clients. To bar them from appearing before their old jurisdiction for two years.

He ended up withdrawing the amendments he didn’t withdraw

Moskowitiz’s point, he said, was that the proposal would be a mistake and the 12-year limit aribitrary.

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.


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