The Florida House on Wednesday narrowly approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit Supreme Court justices and appeals-court judges to two consecutive terms in office, sending a major priority of Speaker Richard Corcoran to an uncertain fate in the Senate.
House members voted to approve the measure (HJR 1) on a 73-46 vote nearly along party lines. It takes 72 votes to pass a constitutional amendment through the House.
Six Republicans – Reps. Eric Eisnaugle of Orlando, Jay Fant of Jacksonville, Joe Gruters of Sarasota, Don Hahnfeldt of The Villages, George Moraitis of Fort Lauderdale and Dan Raulerson of Plant City – joined Democrats in opposing the measure.
If adopted by the Senate and the voters in a November 2018 referendum, the proposal would essentially limit most judges to between 12 and 15 years in office. Service of current District Court of Appeal judges and Supreme Court justices before 2019 would not count toward their term limits.
Appellate judges in Florida aren't directly elected but go on the ballot every six years in retention elections for up-or-down votes.
Legal organizations across the political spectrum have opposed the legislation, but Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, brushed that off in a statement issued by his office after the vote.
"That tells you we are doing what is right," Corcoran said. "And neither special interest hand-wringing nor political influence will stop the House from doing what is right. It boils down to this – we believe that no government job should be for life."
But opponents argued that the measure was aimed at weakening the judicial branch after a string of Supreme Court rulings that have stymied Republicans who dominate state government. Many of those rulings have been issued by majorities featuring long-serving Democratic appointees.
"At the end of this day, the bill will have one major chilling effect: a less-independent judiciary beholden to the executive and legislative branches," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.
Debate over the measure was wide-ranging, with lawmakers discussing their favorite installments of the Federalist Papers and the federal court-packing scheme advanced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In addition to questions about judicial independence, opponents of the measure say term limits would discourage young lawyers from applying for court openings, because they would be forced to rebuild their practices after roughly 12 years of service.
Critics also contend that more experienced judges shouldn't be pushed off the courts.
"Term limits are not going to ensure the best judges are on the bench," William Large, president of the conservative Florida Justice Reform Institute, wrote in a letter to lawmakers ahead of the vote. "Instead they will only ensure that the best and brightest Florida lawyers rarely apply, and even when good judges manage to end up on the bench, they will be kicked off just as they are gaining the institutional knowledge and experience that make for great judges."
But supporters argued that the proposal would bring more accountability to the judiciary and make it more responsive to the people.
Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, a Mount Dora Republican who sponsored the proposal, underscored that no appellate judge has ever lost a retention election.
"An accountability system which doesn't hold people accountable is not truly an accountability system," Sullivan said. "Retention elections are not an effective check and balance on the appellate courts, and it's time for a new approach."
The constitutional amendment faces stiff opposition in the Senate, though, where other judicial changes approved by the House in recent years have been watered down or rejected. Republican leaders in the chamber have already signaled they have concerns about the new proposal.