A proposal changing the eligibility requirements for becoming a judge in a state or county court is starting to move in a committee of the Constitution Revision Commission. That’s the panel that meets every 20 years to revise the state constitution and put the matter before voters.
Under current state law, Florida Supreme Court Justices and district court of appeal judges must be members of the Florida Bar for ten years, before they’re eligible to sit on the bench.
But, for circuit and county court judges, CRC Commission member Bill Schifino says they don’t have the same requirements.
“The Constitution requires that a person must have been a member of the Florida Bar for only the preceding five years to be eligible for the office of circuit judge,” he said. “The same five-year requirement presently applies to county court judges, unless the county has a population of 40,000 or less. The legislature has not amended the constitutional membership requirement for candidates filling a county court judgeship in a county with a population of 40,000 or less.”
So, Schifino has a proposal (Proposal 47) creating a uniform eligibility standard for all those seeking a judicial post: 10 years as a practicing lawyer in Florida.
“You know, I’ve been practicing 30 years, and in my term as President and President-Elect of the Florida Bar and speaking with many judges and many members of the Florida Bar, the uniform consensus is that it is time to raise that Florida Bar membership requirement from five to 10 years,” he added. “I think it speaks for itself. Experience matters. Life experiences, and I think all in all it will make for an attractive judiciary.”
Schifino’s proposal came up for its first vote in the Florida Constitution Revision Commission’s Judicial Committee, a panel he chairs. But, fellow Commissioner and state senator Tom Lee questioned Schifino about who this would apply to.
“So, as a practical matter, if you’ve been a practicing lawyer for 20 years, but only lived in Florida for seven, you wouldn’t be able to run for judge,” Lee asked.
“That would be correct,” Schifino replied.
And, Attorney General Pam Bondi—also a CRC Commissioner—says that could rule out some good people.
“You know, Commissioner Schifino, I was going to wholeheartedly agree with you,” she said. “I just thought you had to be a member of a bar for ten years. Because I agree, I don’t think a five-year lawyer is ready to be a judge. I just don’t! But, I think Commissioner Lee’s point…I don’t know if you’d be willing to amend it. I mean, what if you do have someone who has practiced for 20 years and then comes to Florida and has practiced for six, seven years, they wouldn’t be qualified to be a judge.”
And, while he says that was unintentional, Schifino says he’s willing to amend his proposal to allow for lawyers from any other state’s Bar to apply to be a judge, as long as they have ten years experience.
He intends to amend it at its next stop, the CRC’s Executive Committee. After that, the full 37-member Constitution Revision Commission will take up the proposal. If approved, they’ll place it on the 2018 ballot. It will then require 60 percent of voter approval to be part of the state’s constitution.
Meanwhile, Schifino’s proposal (Proposal 41) increasing the mandatory retirement age for Florida judges from 70 to 75 also passed the CRC’s Judicial Committee.
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