Times up? Florida considers term limits for appeals judges

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida would be the first state in the country to set term limits for appellate and Supreme Court judges under a proposal the Florida House voted Wednesday to put on the 2018 ballot.

Republicans see the proposed 12-year term limits as a way to rein in judges who they say “legislate from the bench,” and it’s the latest shot in the Legislature’s continuing feud with the Supreme Court. Democrats vigorously opposed the idea, saying that it would discourage qualified people from applying for appellate judgeships and would force good judges to retire to be replaced with people with less experience.

But it’s a top priority for Republican Speaker Richard Corcoran — it is bill No. 1 out of more than 2,100 House bills filed — and won House approval in a 73-46 vote. All Democrats opposed it.

“Today we have a judiciary that is legislating from the bench and is not accountable to the people,” said Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, who sponsored the bill. “Is the power of incumbency for justices and judges too much? Is it time to rein in the judiciary with a simple concept that already applies to the executive branch and the legislative branch?”

Democrats pointed out that the state already allows voters to remove judges and justices from the bench. Sullivan countered that none has been removed through the merit retention process in the nearly 50 years since it was established, making it an ineffective form of accountability.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1992 setting term limits for the governor, Cabinet and legislators at eight years. If the proposal to set term limits for judges makes the ballot, it would need at least 60 percent voter approval.

Democrats said the judiciary isn’t subject to term limits for a reason and the Legislature shouldn’t be tinkering with a separate branch of government.

“This, in my opinion, is bullying,” said House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz. “If the judge doesn’t rule in your favor, then let’s go after the judge. Let’s go after them with some term limits. Let’s scare them up a little bit and make them think twice.”

Democrats said if judges were forced to leave the bench while still years away from retirement, they could be in a position of hearing cases represented by potential employers as they’re considering their next career move. They also said the proposal is the opposite of what the writers of the U.S. Constitution wanted when they created lifetime appointments for federal judges.

But Republicans said the Constitution also allows for states’ rights.

“Just because no other states do this, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for Florida,” said Republican Rep. Sean Harrison. “We are giving the people of Florida that opportunity to say we want to lead the nation on this topic.”

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, whose appointees would be subject to the limits, doesn’t have a say on whether it makes the ballot. But the Senate will also have to agree. So far a bill there hasn’t had a hearing, an indication that it lacks support from leadership.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and an attorney, said he is “skeptical” about the need for term limits.

“I’m more of someone who respects the equality between the branches,” Galvano said.

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