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House advances bill to limit term of justices and appellate judges

Despite an appeal from a former Supreme Court justice, a Florida House committee on Thursday approved a controversial bill that would ask voters to impose term limits on state appellate judges and Supreme Court justices.

The measure, HJR 197, was approved by the House Appropriations Committee and, if it passes, could be on the 2016 ballot. It would limit to 12 years anyone who serves on the Florida Supreme Court and appellate courts, although it will allow some long terms if they are appointed to partial terms. No current member of the bench would be affected, and trial-court judges would not face term limits.

The idea is a top priority of Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who is the House budget chairman and will be the House speaker in 2017 and 2018, but it is opposed by The Florida Bar, many legal scholars and judicial advocates.

Former Supreme Court Justice Major Harding, who served 11 years on the Florida Supreme Court, spoke against the bill and told the story of his former colleague, Stephen Grimes, who left private practice to serve on the Second District Court of Appeal in 1973 and took a $40,000 a year pay cut to do it. Grimes served 14 years on the court of appeal and then 10 years on the Florida Supreme Court.

"He indicated to me that had he not had the expectation of devoting his entire judicial life to the judiciary with the hope of retiring when we reach 70, he would never had abandoned the role that he was playing as a member of that law firm,'' Harding said.

Harding said the move to limit the terms of judges will not only discourage people from seeking a court appointment but will diminish the quality of people who serve on the bench.

"I really have a significant fear -- in my conversations with people that served on judicial nominating commissions --  that there are numbers of unqualifed people who are seeking judicial appointments because they unable in the practice of law to make what a judge would make,'' he said.

But Corcoran, who has condemned many of the rulings of the current Florida Supreme Court, including their recent ruling on redistricting, noted that former President Thomas Jefferson strongly believed that no judge should ever serve a life term and believes that if legislators and governors have term limits, the judiciary should as well.

He said the governors are appointing people to the bench at younger and younger ages and it has become "a legacy thing for a sitting governor" and the merit retention system, which requires appellate judges to seek voter approval every six years, "is not real accountability."

In 2012, Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to defeat three members of the court majority --- R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince --- during their merit retention elections. Each of them is on the third six year term.

Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, said the amendment was needed to encourage a public debate on the issue. Last summer, called for the impeachment of some of the Supreme Court justices over  the redistricting decision that struck down the state's congressional map.

Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, was among the Democrats who opposed the bill. "There is value in experience and I believe that value will be diminished with term limits."

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he was voting against the bill but recognized that "merit retention is not truly working" and "maybe we need to do a better job of educating the public, of holding judges accountable."

Progress Florida Executive Director Mark Ferrulo, who runs Florida Access to Justice Project, called the bill "another transparent attempt at a power grab by politicians who want to weaken our courts."

A long-time friend of Corcoran's, Paul Hawkes, has been hired by the appellate court judges to lobby against the bill. Hawkes is a former appellate court judge resigned a his post in 2011 to avoid a trial and possible removal from office over his role in the construction of a lavish new courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal, which became known as the Taj Mahal. After leaving the bench, Hawkes became a lobbyist.