If you are one of those who are sick and tired of judges ruling against your policy preferences, the Florida House of Representatives is offering an elixir for what ails you.
Judges are in the news a lot lately. From the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, to the drama in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, many Americans are paying attention to black robes.
Florida is now adding to the conversation on the judicial branch. If HJR 1 is enacted, Florida Supreme Court and appeals court judges could serve no more than 12 years. While several states have term limits on the executive and legislative branches, Florida would become the first state to impose limits on the judicial branch
If approved, the measure would go before voters in 2018 with 60 percent needed to amend the Florida Constitution. While there is a chance it could pass the House, there is no companion measure in the Florida Senate.
Clearing the House is not a slam dunk. The measure barely emerged from the House Civil Justice and Claims subcommittee. Republicans George Moraitis and committee vice-chair Jay Fant voted with the five Democrats to provide a razor-thin 8-7 vote to move the bill forward.
Judicial accountability is said to be a priority of Speaker Richard Corcoran. Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, a Republican from Mount Dora, makes the case for her bill and for Corcoran.
“An accountability system that does not hold people accountable is not truly accountable,” she told the subcommittee. “This bill seeks to correct that and give the people of Florida another opportunity to implement the accountability they originally intended to place upon our judicial branch of government.”
All of that is well and good, but perhaps it is time to pause and reflect on a couple of important facts.
First, haven’t the Republicans been in charge of judicial appointments for the past two decades? Governors have appointed the members of the Judicial Nomination Commissions, who have forwarded candidates generally palatable to the governor.
With the appointment of Judge C. Alan Lawson to the Supreme Court by Gov. Rick Scott, Florida is now only one justice away from a conservative majority. That will come to a head near the end of Scott’s term.
Second, perhaps the remedy is worse than the “disease.” Term limiting judges creates more problems than it solves. On this some conservatives are in agreement with liberals.
There are reasons judges and justices have lifetime appointments, or at least until the mandatory retirement age of 70. One of the best arguments against the bill comes from former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who also served with distinction in the Florida House.
“Our founding fathers believed deeply in the independence of the judiciary, making sure that we protected our judges from the winds of change, from politics and from worrying about making an unpopular decision,” he told the subcommittee.
The Florida Justice Reform Institute, who advocates conservative, originalist judicial thinking, has a sound argument against the measure. He believes fewer lawyers will want to become judges.
“We want judges that are knowledgeable, experienced, diligent, and who are texturalists and originalists,” said the institute’s director, William Large. “And judges who can say what the law is, not what it should be.”
The bill now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee.
It is true that no Florida judge or justice has been removed under the current system of merit retention. Instead of changing the constitution, conservatives should ensure they elect another conservative in 2018 to continue making judicial appointments.
That will primarily achieve the results conservatives seek from the judiciary.