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Judicial Term Limits: Responsive Government, Or Political Payback?

The Florida Supreme Court.
Nick Evans

Florida’s appellate and Supreme Court magistrates could be subject to term limits under a plan by the Florida House. Supporters of the bill, including the chamber’s conservative leaders, say judges were never meant to have lifetime appointments to the bench.

The House Joint Resolution is being carried by Republican Representative John Wood. He says the measure is an attempt to create a conversation on what calls the proper role of the judiciary.

“I think it’s important that we have this discussion, and in my opinion, I think it’s important that the people of Florida have a vigorous debate," he says.

Right now, Florida’s Supreme Court and appellate court magistrates are term limited out of office on or after their 70th birthday’s, as written in Florida’s constitution. For Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, Fred Lewis and E.C. Perry, that date is around January 2019. They’re widely labeled as the liberal justices. Most recently  the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state’s Congressional and state Senate District maps. That forced the legislature into two special sessions to redraw voting district lines, and it doesn't sit well with many lawmakers, mostly Republicans.

“We already have forced retirements, we have merit retention process, and now we’re adding term limits. T chips away at the independence of the judiciary, and that’s concerning," says Democratic Rep. Cynthia Stafford.

It’s not the first time the legislature has tried to tinker with the Judiciary. A few years ago, plans to split the Florida Supreme in two failed. Lawmakers later approved a law requiring legislatively-sponsored amendments to be rewritten if they’re deemed misleading, instead of tossing them from the ballot.  House Minority Leader Mark Pafford questions the motive behind the proposal.

“I wonder if term limits will prevent inappropriate behavior, or if in fact, it’s to sidestep decisions that we as a legislature or any other decision-making body…. That we don’t agree with," he says.

But it’s not that clear for fellow Democrat, Darryl Rouson. He argues the state’s six-year merit retention vote system isn’t working.

“Sometimes a judge, like any other elected official, should feel the heat of what happens when they act unprofessionally on the bench--understand the electorate really could term them out and that merit retention meant something," Rouson says. "But we know the statistics don’t bear out the efficiency, or the efficacy of merit retention.”

Very few people vote in judicial elections and most of the time, judges stay in office.

Thursday’s hearing of the measure brought out Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding. Harding, who served for more than 20 years as a trial judge and another decade at the Florida Supreme Court, says the current merit retention system and mandatory retirement fits. “It is my deep believe that it would be better to allow the system to remain as it is at this point," he told the House Appropriations Committee.

But Future House Speaker Richard Corcoran argues the U.S. Constitution is on the side of people like him, who favor judicial term limits.

“Left to our own devices, we will seek our own self interest. And I think the court has, left to its own devices, unaccountable for this many years, has allowed it to create its self interest that is encroaching on the separation of powers.”

Wood acknowledges the issue is a timely one.

“For me, this bill and this proposal is being talked about around the county. It’s something that is the future. And that is a government totally responsive to our society.”

And he argues if the most powerful position in the country--the presidency--can be term-limited, then why not the judiciary?