Unfortunately, our Legislature is considering a constitutional amendment that would shrink the pool of quality judges, reduce diversity on the bench and erode confidence in the court system. HJR 1, which has passed in the House, and SJR 482, pending in the Senate, would impose term limits on Supreme Court Justices and Appellate Court judges and shake the foundation of an impartial judiciary.
The proposal subjects Florida to a risky experiment that marks a direct attack on the independence of the third branch of government. In other words, it makes no sense whatsoever. No other state or the federal government imposes judicial term limits at the Supreme Court and Appellate levels, and voters in three states rejected the idea when it was placed on the ballot.
The reason is simple: Judges are not politicians. They don’t select the cases that come before them or create new laws. Their responsibility is to make fair and impartial decisions based on correct interpretations of the law, even if those decisions sometimes are unpopular. Term limits would create a revolving door of inexperienced judges ill-equipped to resolve the conflicts that touch the daily lives of Floridians and would inject politics into a judicial system that relies on its neutrality to function freely and fairly for the benefit of all citizens.
Judges must be held accountable when they violate the trust we place in them, but in Florida they already are. Judges who violate judicial canons are prosecuted by the Judicial Qualifications Commission and disciplined, including removal, by the Supreme Court. Florida’s Constitution also provides for impeachment of judges by the House of Representatives and trial by the Senate. Judges also are accountable to the people of Florida through the process of merit selection and merit retention. Judicial Nominating Commissions, comprised of lawyers and non-lawyers, carefully recruit and evaluate judicial candidates, and the Governor appoints judges from the Commissions’ recommendations.
Additionally, Florida Supreme Court Justices and Appeals Court Judges must appear on the ballot for retention in nonpartisan elections every six years. The fact that Florida voters have never rejected a jurist for retention since the first vote in 1978 testifies to the effectiveness of merit selection in choosing competent and fair jurists. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel and mandate that a fair and competent judge magically becomes unable and incapable to serve the people after 12 years. The Florida Bar and business leaders oppose term limits for the judiciary.
One of our nation’s Founders, Alexander Hamilton, foresaw the difficulty of finding people with both the skill and the integrity to be good judges. In the Federalist Papers, he predicted that a temporary term of office would discourage potential judges and would “have a tendency to throw the administration of justice into hands less able, and less well qualified, to conduct it with utility and dignity.”
Fairness, experience, competence, and consistency form the foundation of an impartial judiciary as a co-equal branch of government. We must reject the proposed term limits and preserve a judiciary that is independent and free from political pressure.
Alan Bookman, a lawyer with Emmanuel Sheppard & Condon, P.A. in Pensacola, is a former president of The Florida Bar and the Escambia/Santa Rosa Bar Association.