CRC debates the retirement age for judges
Another proposal would require 10 years of Bar membership to become a judge
By Jim Ash
Florida voters could raise the minimum requirements for becoming a judge, and the mandatory retirement age for judges and Supreme Court justices, under separate proposals gaining steam in the Constitution Revision Commission.
The CRC’s Judicial Committee voted unanimously November 28 to approve a measure (P-41) by Chair Bill Schifino that would raise the existing retirement age for judges and Supreme Court justices, often referred to as “constitutional senility,” from 70 to 75.
The CRC is a 37-member panel that meets every two decades to update Florida’s legal blueprint. It has the power to put measures directly on the November ballot.
Schifino, immediate past president of The Florida Bar, said most judges told him they wanted to serve longer, as he traveled the state and conducted an informal survey. He said the proposal also acknowledges that baby boomers are leading healthier, more active lifestyles.
“At 75, certainly some would say, that’s the new 55,” Schifino said.
The proposal would eliminate an existing constitutional provision that allows judges and justices to serve the remainder of their six-year terms if they age out more than half way through their tenure.
Raising the retirement age without removing the grace period, Schifino said, would keep some judges and justices on the bench at 78.
The committee agreed to “temporarily postpone” a competing measure, (P-1). Sponsored by Commissioner Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. attorney, and Commissioner Don Gaetz, a former Senate president, measure would have also raised the retirement age by five years, but kept the grace period.
Martinez said he now believes eliminating the grace period is a good idea, if only to prevent multiple vacancies from burdening the courts.
“It would stagger, in points in time, when the jurists would come off the bench,” Martinez said.
Schifino’s proposed amendment would become effective July 1, 2019.
That would make it too late to apply to the pending retirements of Justices Peggy Quince, Barbara Pariente, and Fred Lewis, and hopefully, sponsors say, separate it from the controversy surrounding their successors.
Gov. Rick Scott’s second and final term ends the same day the justices are being forced to step down, and the Florida League of Women Voters and Florida Common Cause are asking the Supreme Court to block Scott from naming their replacements.
The two groups believe Scott’s successor has the right to fill the vacancies. Scott disagrees.
“I thought it important that it has an effective date of July 1, 2019, and I thought it important that we push that for obvious reasons,” Schifino said.
“We avoid the political issue that is on the front burner,” Martinez agreed.
The proposal faces another vote in the Ethics and Elections Committee before going before the full commission. When the CRC last met two decades ago, a proposal to raise the judicial retirement age to 72 made it out of an initial committee, but never reached the full commission.
With just two minutes left on the meeting clock (votes had to be taken by 5 p.m.,) the Judicial Committee also voted unanimously to approve another measure by Schifino, (P-47) that would require all judges in Florida to have been members of The Florida Bar for 10 years before they can qualify for the bench.
The standard currently applies only to appellate judges and Supreme Court justices. Circuit and county judges can qualify for the bench after belonging to The Florida Bar for five years. But county judges who serve in jurisdictions with less than 40,000 residents are exempt.
Schifino said higher standards are overdue.
“I’ve been practicing 30 years, and in my term as president and president-elect of The Florida Bar, the uniform consensus is that it’s time to raise that bar,” Schifino said. “I think all and all, it will make for an even more attractive judiciary.”
But with just two minutes to go before adjournment, Commissioner and state Sen. Tom Lee, also a former Senate president, raised a last-minute concern about lawyers moving to Florida. Lee said he was worried that lawyers with extensive legal experience in other states would be discouraged from becoming judges. Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is also a commissioner, agreed with Lee.
“I thought that you just had to be a member of ‘a’ bar for 10 years,” Bondi said. “But what if you do have someone who has practiced for 20 years, and they come to Florida and they practice for six years, they would not be qualified to be a judge?”
With time running out, Schifino was ready to bargain. He promised to change the proposal when it reached the Executive Committee, it’s second and final stop. Lee said he was satisfied.
“I would have no objection, upon the commitment of the sponsor, to vote on it here, and have it amended,” Lee said.