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Judicial terms limits bill moves

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Judicial terms limits bill moves

Senior Editor

Saying Florida’s appellate judges should approach their jobs as public service and not a career until retirement, Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would create term limits for them.

Proposed committee substitute for HJR 197 passed 8-5 out of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, its first committee stop, on November 3.

Rep. John Wood On the advice of Chair Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, the committee substitute makes clear it would not impact existing members of the judiciary and would not apply to trial judges, whom Passidomo called “elected and accountable to the public” and “really in the trenches.”

Only if the proposal garners three-fifths of the vote in both the House and Senate, could it wind up on the ballot in 2016 for Florida voters to decide, and would then apply to appellate judges appointed by the governor after that date. The amendment would have the effect of limiting appellate judges to serve 13 to 15 to 15 years maximum, based upon what date they are appointed.

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, an attorney, took the lead on questioning the purpose of the proposed constitutional amendment.

“What brought about the need for us tinkering with the judiciary and changing these terms that judges have presently to trying to term-limit them?” Dudley asked.

Wood, an attorney and Realtor, responded: “I think it’s clear in our society the impact that the appellate judiciary has on our society. And I believe there are many qualified individuals who are willing to commit to the requirements of public service and serve as an appellate judge or Supreme Court justice.

“For me, the diversity of legal philosophy and the rule of law are the foundation of an effective judiciary. Term limits will enhance the proper role of the judiciary in our constitutional government,” Wood said.

“Further, because there are term limits on the executive and legislative branches, adding a similar provision on our judicial branch creates a true balance of power, giving the people of Florida the liberty that our forefathers intended.”

Dudley pressed on: “So, you mention the proper role, that this will improve the proper role of judges. What impropriety can you point to in the existing system of our judiciary where this is necessary?”

Wood responded: “I reject the premise of your question that there needs to be something wrong to introduce something to make something better. I think my first answer to your question laid out clearly my philosophy on why I think this is an improvement to our form of constitutional government.”

There was no mention at this committee meeting that when Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, was voted by his colleagues to become House Speaker after the 2016 elections, he listed term limits for jurists on his agenda.

The lone Republican voting with the Democrats against the proposal was Rep. George Moraitis, Jr., R-Ft. Lauderdale, who said: “I am not particularly pleased with a lot of things that go on in the judiciary these days, and I don’t necessarily lay that at the feet of term limits or lack thereof. I lay it more at who is being appointed, the justices’ own restraint, and not deferring to the Legislature, as we are seeing now with the redistricting that is going on. That said, I am not going to be able to support this.”

Warren Husband, a legislative counsel representing The Florida Bar, said the Bar has not yet taken an official position, and the Board of Governors will take it up at the December 4 meeting in Naples.

“The likelihood is term limits would significantly increase the turnover of judges on Florida’s appellate courts,” Husband testified. “From a broader public policy perspective, you would probably want to ask yourselves whether the continuity and consistency in the development of Florida law would be served by significantly greater turnover in appellate judges.”

Currently, without term limits, Husband said, the turnover is “considerable.”

He provided these numbers: There are currently 64 judges on Florida’s five district courts of appeal. Since Gov. Scott took office in 2011, he has appointed 21 DCA judges, almost a third, or a turnover of about 30 percent.

Husband also pointed to a 2011 Florida Chamber Foundation study analyzing judicial recruitment and retention in Florida that asked: “When you became a judge, was it your intention to continue in that capacity until retirement?”

The overwhelming majority of judges — 91 percent — responded, “Yes.”

“If you can only serve for a maximum of 13 years, if you were born in 1960 or later, your full retirement age is 67. If you take the 13 years away from that, you would reasonably expect that probably you are not going to get many applicants to be a judge who are under 54 years of age,” Husband said, and that would diminish the pool of qualified candidates.

That does not mesh with the current experience in appointing judges, he said. For 21 vacancies, there were 124 total nominees sent from judicial nominating committees to Gov. Scott for his selection. Over half — 52 percent — were under 54 years of age; 33 percent were under age 50, and 25 percent were younger than 46. Looking at the actual appointments that Scott chose to fill these vacancies showed 68 percent were under 54; 48 percent were under 50; and a third were younger than 46.

No other state has term limits for appellate judges, Husband testified, and three states that had the issue on their ballots — Mississippi, Nevada, and Colorado — all failed to pass term limits for appellate judges.

Chris Carlyle, chair of the Bar’s Appellate Practice Section, said they are still soliciting comments from concerned members.

The questions to ask going forward are these, Caryle said: “Is there a value that comes from the experience of being on the bench for a number of years? Is that shared by the senior members with the newer members?”

In closing, Wood said: “We live in a technological world, where every decision is at our fingertips.. . . There are many, many examples of former appellate judges who have very successful legal careers, after they have served. So, the questions are valid, and that’s what this process is about. I encourage everyone to think about the proper role of the judiciary, and I would ask that at this point you would support us moving forward with this conversation.”

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