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House Wants Justices Gone After 12 Years

Some Republican House members want voters to impose term limits on Florida's Supreme Court justices and state appellate judges.
Some Republican House members want voters to impose term limits on Florida's Supreme Court justices and state appellate judges.

The recent death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has added a new dimension to a legislative debate over term limits for Florida justices and appellate judges. The House approved a measure Wednesday, despite dire warnings by Democrats and little interest in the Senate.

Some Republican House members want voters to impose term limits on Florida's Supreme Court justices and state appellate judges.
Some Republican House members want voters to impose term limits on Florida's Supreme Court justices and state appellate judges.

Unlike their brethren on the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida’s seven Supreme Court justices aren’t appointed for life. Florida law forces them to retire at 70, and three of them will reach so-called “constitutional senility” in 2019.

But nobody would know it listening to Wednesday’s House floor debate.  Some conservative Republicans argued Florida’s supreme court justices and appellate judges are too entrenched and should be shown the door after 12 years.  Here’s Republican Jennifer Sullivan of Eustis.

“In our executive branch we have a check and balance of term limits, in the legislative branch, we have a check and balance system of term limits. However, in this third branch, the judicial branch, we don’t have that check and balance.”

Republican John Wood of Winter Haven is sponsoring an amendment on the November ballot that would force justices and appellate judges to step down after serving two, six-year term limits. Wood is considered a constitutional scholar and this is his official reason for the legislation.

“The motivation behind this is the love of the Constitution.”

However, Wood was a bitter critic of last year’s Florida Supreme Court decision striking down the Legislature’s congressional redistricting plan -- and that wasn’t lost on Democrats. They spent most of the debate suggesting Wood was out for revenge.

Representative Evan Jenne of Hollywood suggested Republicans are acting like members of a losing football team.  

“I am of the belief that your first response should be practice more, to train more, perhaps even develop better techniques. What you shouldn’t do is complain about the referees and demand new ones.”

Democrat Jose Rodriguez of Miami was more blunt.

“You really have to wonder what this is about. And for many of us, the conclusion we have reached is that this is really about retribution.

Wood denies wanting to get even. He reminds his critics the bill doesn’t apply to sitting judges and justices.

Some supporters say judges would be more responsive to the people they serve. Others say the stodgiest branch of government would be constantly infused with new blood. Here’s Republican Representative Larry Metz, an attorney from Yalahaw.

“I think it would actually open up opportunities for the best and brightest of our trial judges to serve up line.”

But critics warn term limits would strip the judiciary of institutional knowledge. Some said lawyers would be less willing to serve on the bench knowing they would have to return to private practice in midlife.

Another South Florida Democrat, Jared Moskowitz of Coral Springs, used the debate to strike back at Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate. When the bill first hit the floor Tuesday, Moskowitz tried to pass an amendment banning lame duck governors from filling a state Supreme Court vacancy.

“If you agree with Mitch McConnell that a president should not be able to fulfill his constitutional duty then you should also agree that a governor should not be able to fulfil his constitutional duty.”

Moskowitz had 30 amendments filed at one time, but they were defeated or withdrawn. Before the final vote, he had harsh words for conservatives complaining about judicial activism.

“You know Brown vs Board of Education was called judicial activism. Anyone still think integrating our schools was judicial activism? Anyone still hold that opinion?”

The House approved the measure 76-38, but the Senate companion has yet to get a hearing.

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