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House passes 12-year term limits for justices and judges

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@MichaelAuslen

Justices on the Florida Supreme Court and judges on state appellate courts would be forced out of office after 12 years under a constitutional amendment that the Florida House barely passed Wednesday.

The measure, which has been criticized by business groups and conservative and liberal lawyers, would have to pass the Florida Senate and gain 60 percent of voters’ support to become part of the state Constitution.

Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, says the legislation would give greater accountability to the judicial branch. It is a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who gave it the coveted identifier HJR 1.

“Today, we have a judiciary that is legislating from the bench,” Sullivan said. “It is not accountable to the people.”

The resolution passed 73-46 in the House, where it needed a 72-vote supermajority. Six Republicans voted against the bill — and House leadership: Reps. Eric Eisnaugle of Orlando, Jay Fant of Jacksonville, Joe Gruters of Sarasota, Don Hahnfeldt of The Villages, Goerge Moraitis of Fort Lauderdale and Dan Raulerson of Plant City.

Florida would be the first state to term limit judges and justices. The state has already put eight-year limits on members of the Legislature, the governor and Cabinet officials.

Democrats debated against the term limits, saying they will lead to a lack of expertise on the bench, high turnover, inconsistency in rulings and could result in judges being influenced by prospective future employers in the final years of their terms in office.

What’s more, they say term limits are a politically motivated attack on the courts after rulings that struck down actions taken by the House, including drawing legislative and congressional districts that the court said were gerrymandered.

“It is shortsighted, and it’s punitive in its attempt to injure a coequal branch of government, all because they had the gall to actually do their job, which includes ruling against this House or our friends on the other side of the rotunda when we those two sanctified lines in the sand: The United States Constitution and the state Constitution,” Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.

Already, judges on Florida's district courts of appeals and justices in the Supreme Court face merit retention elections every six years in which the voters can choose to remove them from office. They also must retire at age 70.

In a statement, Corcoran said that the outspoken opposition to the term limits measure from legal organizations on both sides of the political aisle, as well as business groups, is good.

"That tells you we are doing what is right," he 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."

Photo: Florida House. (Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times)

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