Most Floridians are not aware there are bills pending in the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate, which if passed, would seek to amend Florida’s Constitution to provide for judicial term limits. This is very dangerous to our democracy.
No state in our country has imposed judicial term limits on appellate court judges and state Supreme Court justices, the targets of this proposed legislation. This has never been done in the entire history of our country. The primary reason for this is the importance of having an independent judiciary as a coequal third branch of our government, not subject to partisan politics or pending political issues of the day. While judicial term limits sounds interesting (because many people like the idea of “term limits”), this is actually very corrosive to judicial independence. Proponents of legislative term limits point out that politicians in elected office for too many years potentially lose their effectiveness. The opposite is true for our judicial branch. More years on the bench provide increased subject matter knowledge and experience, which benefits Floridians, especially on complicated and important cases.
If Judicial term limits are imposed, this will result in two bad consequences. First, there will be the continuous influx of less experienced judges, who will be called on to make extremely important decisions that affect the daily lives of so many people in our state. Second, fewer qualified people will seek to become judges if they are going to find themselves out of a job after a couple of terms. There is no reason or benefit to judicial term limits, and there will be significant harm to the functioning of a quality judiciary if this actually happens.
Florida law currently provides for a system of merit retention elections that works extremely well. Further, there is an independent Judicial Qualifications Committee that reviews complaints against sitting judges and has imposed sanctions and even removal for judges who violate their responsibilities. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often and usually involves lower level judges who are removed from the system by this process. Our judicial system – and the current election and oversight system – works very well here in Florida.
So why this is being proposed and pushed now? The answer is simple. This attempt to impose judicial term limits is a political move to weaken our independent judiciary so partisan politicians can advance their political agenda with weaker judicial review. It is the judiciary that protects us from over-aggressive power grabs or bad laws that can harm us. The push for “judicial term limits” is a political power grab, at the expense of our independent judiciary.
The Florida House actually voted for judicial term limits last year, but the bill did not advance in the Florida Senate. We are not expecting that to be the case this year. The bill will pass the Florida House, and its fate in the Florida Senate is unclear. Please reach out to your Florida Senator in your voting district, and tell them that you are a pose judicial term minutes and they should vote “no!” The fate of an independent judiciary is in our hands. Let’s make sure our elected state legislators hear our voice.
Gary S. Lesser is the Managing Partner of Lesser, Lesser, Landy & Smith, and is the current Legislation Chair for the Florida Bar Board of Governors.