Florida Judges to Face Renewed Term Limit Push

(CN) – One of Florida’s top lawmakers has renewed his call for 12-year term limits for judges, and just as happened when he first raised the issue last year, he’s facing vigorous opposition from the state’s legal community.

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’Lakes, has made the state’s judiciary a top priority for the upcoming 2017 legislative season.

In speeches on the House floor and to state business leaders, Corcoran has expressed a desire to limit Supreme Court justices and appellate judges to serving two six-year terms on the bench.

Earlier this month, in a speech at the Associated Industries of Florida’s annual conference, Corcoran said the “enemy” of the business community is the “seven individuals who meet in private and wear black robes.”

In the last legislative session, Corcoran supported a House bill limiting appellate and Supreme Court judges to two six-year terms. That measure passed the state House but stalled in the state Senate.

But the state’s legal community does not support his measures.

On December 9, the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors unanimously rejected support for judicial term limits – a position they took last year as well. In editorials printed in newspapers across the state, Florida Bar President William Schifino Jr. said term limits for judges “should concern all Floridians.”

“The shared goal of ensuring that each branch respects the sovereignty of the others is a fundamental concept of our democracy,” Schifino wrote.

Raymond Elligett Jr., an appellate attorney in Tampa, agreed.

“People who propose [term limits] don’t understand — or must’ve forgotten — the roles of the courts and the checks and balances of our system of government,” he told Courthouse News.

“The courts are not supposed to be responsible to the voters,” Elligett said. “They are supposed to protect people’s rights from the majority.”

Corcoran’s push for judicial term limits comes after the Florida Supreme Court made sweeping decisions against policies supported by the state’s Republican leadership.

The court ordered Florida’s congressional and state Senate districts to be redrawn after finding evidence of gerrymandering. In another decision, the court rejected limits on attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases, which critics say increased insurance rates. Two months later, justices struck down a portion of the workers’ compensation law that created a coverage gap for injured workers seeking total disability benefits.

The Florida Supreme Court’s liberal majority played a large part in the decisions.

“You hear this story of judicial activism, but you don’t hear about what precedes it,” said Philip Padovano, a retired appellate judge from the First District Court of Appeal. “If there was no gerrymandering in the first place, we wouldn’t have this situation. They only have themselves to blame.”

Term limits could also have unintended consequences, such as a decline in qualified judges, Padovano said. If an attorney works hard to build a successful practice, then joins the judiciary for 12 years, they might not have a practice to return to, he explained.

“I think it would wreck the judiciary, because we would not have people who would make a career out of serving on the bench,” he said. “I think what’s going to happen is we’ll end up attracting those lawyers who couldn’t do anything better.”

Appellate attorney Matthew Conigliaro of St. Petersburg added term limits could unnecessarily create conflicts of interest during the judge’s term.

“At some point, people might question whether judicial decision-making would be influenced by what the judge is going to do” when he or she leaves office, he said.

Conigliaro sympathizes with Corcoran’s concerns about judicial overreach, but he said term limits is not the answer.

“The way to fix the judicial decision-making troubles is to make sure the JNC [Judicial Nominating Commission] nominates, and the governor appoints, people with genuine conservative judicial credentials,” he said. “Appoint people in the first place that will do the job well.”

Shannon Carlyle, an appellate attorney based out of Central Florida, said there are already systems in place to handle errant judges.

“We have protections in place to remove judges who are not doing their job,” she said, referring to the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission and merit retention votes.

Florida adopted a merit retention system in the 1970s. Every six years, voters decide if appellate and Supreme Court justices stay on the bench.

Even if a bill does not pass the legislative session, Corcoran hopes the upcoming Constitution Revision Commission could put judicial term limits in the state’s Constitution.

Every 20 years, the CRC reviews the state’s Constitution and recommends changes, which voters must approve. House Speaker Corcoran will appoint nine of the 37 spots on the commission.

Corcoran did not respond to a request for comment.

If approved, Florida would be the first state to impose term limits on appellate judges.