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House panel approves three measures tamping down on the judiciary

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A House committee voted Thursday to approve three proposals to tie the hands of Florida’s judiciary, including a proposed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on judges of courts of appeal and Supreme Court.

Altogether, the measures would limit appellate judges to two six-year terms; remove a judicial education program from the Supreme Court’s supervision; and require the high court to report its caseload clearance rate to the governor and House and Senate leaders.

Legislative leaders have chafed at court rulings striking down their priorities in recent years, but supporters in the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee have insisted this had nothing to do with that.

Committee member Sean Shaw — a Tampa Democrat whose father, Leander Shaw, served for many years on the appellate bench, including the Florida Supreme Court — wasn’t persuaded.

“We seem to forget that the judiciary is a co-equal branch of our government,” he said following the committee’s meeting. “The judiciary is just as important as the branch that I serve in. They’re sure not being treated like it.”

HJR 1 would limit judges of the district courts of appeal and the Supreme Court to 12 years in all. They’d have to sit out a year after being termed out to become eligible to rejoin the bench. The measure passed, 8-7.

Mount Dora Republican Jennifer Mae Sullivan sponsored the bill. She noted that, since Florida adopted the merit-retention system for judges during the 1970s, not one has been defeated in a retention election.

“Any accountability system that doesn’t hold people accountable is not truly an accountability system,” she said.

The measure drew opposition from groups including the Institute for Legal Reform, the Florida Board of Trial Advocacy Education Fund, the Florida Judicial Reform Institute, and various sections of the Florida Bar.

The thrust of the opponents’ argument was the danger to judicial independence; that the existing system works; and that change would discourage the brightest young legal minds from seeking the bench, for fear of having to restart a law practice after 12 years away.

At the same time, Jeff Kottcamp, of the advocacy fund, argued the state would be foolish to discard experienced judges.

“When it comes to dispensing justice — to matters of life and liberty — there is no substitute for experience,” he said.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, the bill needs the support of three-fifths of the membership of the House and Senate plus 60 percent of the voters.

HB 301 would require the state’s chief justice to deliver its annual report on the number of cases undecided after more than 180 days to the governor, House speaker, and Senate president.

The reports would be due each Oct. 15. At present, the chief justice receives the report.

The bill passed, 13-3.

PCB for HB 175 would transfer oversight of Florida’s training programs for judges from the high court to Florida Court Education Council, which now advises the court on judicial education. Its staff would be cut from 15 employees to three.

The measure passed, 11-5.

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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