By Mark D. Killian
House Speaker Richard Corcoran again called for a 12-year term limit for judges. And, again, just as a year ago, The Florida Bar Board of Governors unanimously voted December 9 to oppose judicial term limits at all levels of Florida’s court system.
“I think, in terms of opposing term limits on our judges — be it appellate or trial — it is a troublesome idea for the people of this state and its businesses,” said Bar President Bill Schifino, noting he has practiced law for 31 years, served on a judicial nominating commission, and is a business lawyer.
“It is a very significant issue for the citizens and the businesses of this state,” Schifino said. “I certainly believe it is not in the best interest of either,”
When the Land O’ Lakes Republican was sworn in November 22 for a two-year term leading the Florida House, Corcoran said it was important for public servants to put principle over power.
“Nowhere is there a greater example of people putting power above principle than in our judicial branch,” Corcoran said on the House floor after being elected speaker. “We need judges who respect the Constitution and the separation of powers; who will reject the temptation to turn themselves into some unelected, super-legislature. The problem with holding the same office for, in essence, life, is you start to think that the office is far, far, far less important than the person in it — which is why we need 12-year term limits on judges, so we can have a healthy judicial branch.”
Corcoran said a functioning judiciary is an integral component to a healthy economy and no economic system has done more for mankind than the free enterprise system.
“It has lifted more people out of poverty in the last three centuries than in the previous 3,000 years,” he said. “But when judges and lawmakers and bureaucrats start writing laws that literally pick winners and losers that is when markets fail. We have got to reduce the damage that has been done. We need to deregulate all these barriers to entry.”
Corcoran doubled down on his assertion that the Florida Supreme Court does not respect the separation of powers while speaking at Associated Industries’ annual conference in Tallahassee on December 5.
“We are the only state in the history of our country that called legislators to come testify and tell them what they were thinking when they were writing a particular law; it doesn’t exist anywhere else in America,” Corcoran said. “So I would say that the Supreme Court does not understand the separation of powers and writes laws out of whole cloth.”
Meeting with reporters after the Associated Industries speech, the House speaker was critical of a number of recent Supreme Court decisions he thinks have gone too far.
“They can interpret the law but they can’t write the law, and they write law over and over and over, and they are very good at it, obviously. Look at the predicament we are in,” Corcoran said. “I don’t care if you take redistricting law, social justice issues, criminal justice issues, death penalty issues, business issues. It doesn’t matter. It’s rampant.”
Corcoran contrasted how the court operates compared with the Legislature, where the legislative branch’s business is debated “out in the open.”
“There are no meetings that we have that are seven people behind [closed doors] coming out with an edict from on high that writes whole cloth law,” he said.
When asked if the court’s deliberations should be public, Corcoran said: “I’d have to think about that.”
“The founders were brilliant in that you want three branches; you want those three branches to function; and you want them to be separate and distinct and not go into each other’s territory.”
A year ago, Corcoran also called for judicial term limits, and a proposed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on Florida’s appellate judges cleared the Florida House of Representatives by the 60 percent threshold needed for sending constitutional amendments to the voters. Despite the success in the lower chamber, the Senate’s counterpart legislation was never heard in committee or on the Senate floor. The legislation would have limited future appellate judges and justices to two appearances on the merit retention ballot, which would effectively limit their service to between 12 and 15 years, depending on when they were initially appointed by the governor.
A year ago, after a thorough review of the issue of judicial term limits, and much input from attorneys across the state and across the political spectrum, the Bar’s BOG — comprised of 50 attorneys and two nonlawyer public members from throughout Florida — voted unanimously to oppose judicial term limits at all levels of Florida’s state court system.
Similar positions have been adopted by the Bar’s Business Law Section, Appellate Practice Section, and Trial Lawyer Section, as well as by the Bar’s Young Lawyers Division.
The reason for the Bar opposition is that judicial term limits would significantly increase the already considerable turnover of state judges. With term limits, the Bar believes, more turnover on the bench would result in less effective, lengthier, and more costly resolution of cases; less consistency in the development of Florida law; an erosion of public confidence in the judicial system; and a significant decline in qualified judicial candidates.
Aimee Diaz Lyon, one of the Bar’s legislative counsels, predicted this will be a legislative issue this year and next, as well as before the Constitution Revision Commission meeting in 2017. Calling it a foregone conclusion in the House, Schifino said the focus will be in the Senate.