TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A House subcommittee on Thursday cautiously began a discussion of term limits for state appellate judges, hearing a presentation on the subject but no real details on what a proposal might look like.
Limiting the amount of time Supreme Court justices and judges for the state's district courts of appeal can spend on the bench is a key priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes.
But House Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee Chairwoman Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, said after Thursday's meeting that she didn't yet have a position on a term-limits proposal, saying she would look at it with "fresh eyes."
Fitzenhagen was among those who voted for a House proposal last year that would have imposed term limits on appellate judges; that idea died in the Senate. Last year's initiative --- which would have barred judges from running for re-election after finishing two full, six-year terms --- could provide the framework for House legislation considered this year.
Despite not having a position, Fitzenhagen suggested one of the reasons that the idea of term limits continues to float around.
"I think term limits is looking at things from the perspective of other branches of government have term limits," she said. "Is it something that we should consider to have term limits so that we have new fresh faces on the court system that can bring new opinions, just like we do in the Legislature?"
Nathan Bond, policy chief for the subcommittee, told the panel that the 2016 proposal's limits, which would have likely given many judges 13 to 15 years in the courts because of partial terms, might not change much.
He pointed to Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson, who was recently appointed to the high court by Gov. Rick Scott. Under current requirements, Lawson would have to step down in May 2031 because of the mandatory retirement age of 70. If last year's House proposal had taken effect before the appointment, Lawson would have been required to leave the court in January 2031.
"How would judicial term limits affect the judiciary?" Bond said. "Perhaps less than you think."
The discussion of terms limits, though, has alarmed Democrats and attorneys. While current judges would be exempt from the changes, critics say the concept is driven in part by GOP lawmakers' anger at the current Florida Supreme Court, where a left-of-center majority has proven to be the last remaining obstacle to Republicans who largely control state government.
The Florida Bar has opposed term limits, arguing that they could limit the number of legal minds who could be considered for the courts.
"As a judge, you can't carry on a law practice while you're a judge," said Warren Husband, who spoke for the Bar at Thursday's meeting. "So you have to leave your practice, leave your clients, turn those over to other folks, go on the bench for 12, 13, 15 years, whatever it happens to be, and you can't reasonably expect just to pick up where you left off when you get off the bench. So probably you're going to get an older pool of applicants than you have now."
Opponents also say voters can impose their own term limits through the ballot box. Appellate judges now run for re-election in what are known as "merit retention" races, where they face no opponents but can be thrown off the bench unless voters choose to keep them in office.
Republicans have countered that no judge has ever been voted out. But Rep. Sean Shaw, son of former Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw, told reporters after the meeting that the argument wasn't convincing.
"My response to that would be: So what?" said Shaw, D-Tampa. "They have faced the voters. Just because no one's lost is not a good reason to say it's not working."