In recent months, the Florida Supreme Court has delivered body blows to the conservative agenda, striking down key death penalty provisions and business friendly workers’ compensation reforms.
Now, House Speaker Richard Corcoran is more determined than ever cut the judiciary down to size.
Nobody attending House orientation could doubt how Corcoran views the courts. Here’s how Judiciary Committee staff director Karen Camechis (KA- mechis,) began the official briefing.
“The courts may not interject themselves into political disputes that have been resolved by the Legislature or that would immerse the courts in policy decisions they are ill-equipped to resolve. The courts may not interfere with day-to-day operations of the executive branch and decision-making within the executive branch.”
The day before, Corcoran complained about a lack of corporate enthusiasm for judicial reforms at an Associated Industries of Florida forum. Last session, the House proposed a constitutional amendment limiting appellate judges and Supreme Court justices to 12 years on the bench. It died in the Senate.
Corcoran reminded the AIF audience that a nearly 15 percent hike in workers compensation rates is directly tied to two Supreme Court rulings. House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor says the reforms remain a top priority.
“Regardless of what decisions the court makes it’s not about the decision they make that results in the policy. It’s about whether or not term limits are a good policy at that level of government. I believe they are and I think a majority the members of the House believe they are.”
House conservatives insist it’s not about payback but consistency. If term limits are good for governors and legislators, they’re good for judges. Period.
Freshman Republican Representative Jason Fischer of Jacksonville says the Supreme Court is being partisan. Fischer cites the court’s refusal to accept Legislative redistricting plans as exhibit A.
“When you have people who are not supposed to be partisan, and they show their partisan belief through their decisions, either by acting outside of their authority, or for instance, using the Democratic congressional committee’s maps, and deciding to make policy by clearly partisan angle, they need to be held accountable.”
Regardless of whether the court needs reforming, term-limits are a bad idea, says Tallahassee lobbyist Paul Hawkes. Hawkes is a former legislator and judge who served at on the First District Court of Appeal.
Now Hawkes represents county court and appellate judges. He says term limits would discourage the best legal minds from serving, because the numbers don’t add up. Consider, he says, a Connecticut state bar study showing the primate age for a judge is 45.
“It’s hard to attract someone whose 45-years-old to the appellate bench, for instance, and then tell them that when they’re 56 or 57, they’re going to have to go back out and reestablish themselves in private practice.”
Lawmakers have made the problem worse by not keeping judicial salaries competitive, Hawkes says. Ten years ago, Florida ranked fourth in the nation in terms of pay for appellate judges, Hawkes says.
Today, Florida appellate judge salaries rank 25th in the nation when adjusted for cost of living, according to the National Center for State Courts. And Hawkes says the pay gap between the No. 1 state and Florida is wide.
“And so we are 55 thousand off of number one, and 38 thousand off of number two.”
But Sprowls, the judiciary chairman, says term limits would make the judiciary more attractive by opening up a career ladder.
“You have individuals who could do 12 years, potentially 12 years if that’s what we decide on, on the DCA’s, and really, the cream of the crop should then ascend to the Supreme Court.”
Corcoran likely faces Senate opposition again this year. But next year, the Constitution Revision Commission meets. It has the power every 20 years to put measures directly before voters, and Hawkes expects judicial term limits to come up.
Whether term limits will get a majority of the 37 votes is anybody’s guess. But Corcoran appoints nine members, and he says term limits will be a litmus test.