Judicial Term Limits Are a Bad Idea for Florida
The Business Trial Group joins The Florida Bar in opposing a proposed constitutional amendment that would make Florida the first state in the country to impose term limits for appellate and Supreme Court judges.
We believe that the new judicial limits would undermine the quality and independence of the judiciary, and that they are being pursued for short-term political advantage while risking long-term damage to the courts.
Bills Call for 12-Year Term Limits
HJR 1, which last month was passed by the Florida House, and SJR 482, currently being considered in the Florida Senate, propose limiting the state’s Supreme Court and appeals court judges to two consecutive six-year terms in office.
Under current law, these judges—who reach the bench by gubernatorial appointment following vetting by judicial nominating commissions (JNC)—may serve until they are 70 years old.
The issue could be put to voters in 2018.
HJR 1 passed the House with just one vote to spare. If SJR 482 passes the Senate, voters would have the final say in a November 2018 ballot referendum requiring 60 percent voter approval.
Florida voters in 1992 approved a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of the governor, cabinet, and legislature to eight years.
Proponents Argue for Greater Accountability
Those in favor of judicial term limits say they are needed to prevent judicial overreach and ensure greater accountability.
“Today, we have a judiciary that is legislating from the bench,” said Rep. Jennifer Sullivan (R-Mount Dora), who sponsored the Senate bill. “It is not accountable to the people.”
Florida voters, however, have input into the state judiciary though a yes-or-no merit retention election held every six years. Voters have retained every jurist since the first retention vote in 1978.
In addition, there are procedures in place to discipline judges who violate codes of conduct. Florida’s Constitution also provides for impeachment of judges by the state legislature.
Jennifer Sullivan says that voters’ failure to oust a single judge during retention voting indicates a lack of accountability. But Florida Democrats believe the proposed 12-year limit is political revenge cooked up in response to a string of judicial orders—many issued by Democratic appointee majorities—blocking initiatives from the Republican-led legislature.
“It is shortsighted, and it’s punitive in its attempt to injure a coequal branch of government, all because they had the gall to actually do their job,” said Rep. Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach).
Lawyers Strongly Oppose Term Limits
While opinions on judicial term limits fall along mostly partisan lines in the legislature, lawyers are united in proclaiming the constitutional amendment to be misguided.
The Florida Bar Board of Governors voted unanimously against term limits for the judiciary. Eighteen voluntary sections of the Bar, as well as the Bar’s Young Lawyers Division, also oppose term limits.
Paul SanGiovanni of the Business Trial Group is the former President of the Orange County Bar Association and is just coming off a six-year stint on the Florida Bar Board of Governors.
Alexander Hamilton warned against judicial term limits.
Paul recently co-authored an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel warning against term limits on Florida’s appeal court judges. In the article, Paul and his legal peers explain how judicial term limits would be disastrous for Florida’s third branch of government.
A revolving door of judges, the authors say, would jeopardize the quality of the judiciary, discourage young legal talent from pursuing a judicial career, reduce the stability and predictability of the courts, and subject judges to political pressures that could undermine their fairness and impartiality.
They invoke the words of Alexander Hamilton, who wrote in the Federalist Papers that judicial term limits would, “have a tendency to throw the administration of justice into hands less able, and less well qualified, to conduct it with utility and dignity.”
At stake is nothing less than the integrity of Florida’s courts.