By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 21, 2017......... Legislation that would limit Florida appellate judges to two consecutive terms in office was sent to the House floor Tuesday, as prominent senators have begun voicing concerns about the proposal.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 11-8 on a nearly party-line vote to approve the proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 1), which would need the approval of three-fifths majorities in the House, Senate and in a referendum to take effect. Two Republicans joined all the committee Democrats in opposing the proposal.
The measure would limit Supreme Court justices and appeals-court judges to two, six-year terms, though differences on when they were appointed could mean some jurists would serve a few more years.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and other House members have pushed the plan as a way to increase the accountability of justices and judges, who are subject to merit retention elections at the end of each term. No justice or judge has ever lost one of those elections, in which they run unopposed for another term.
But the reaction to the plan in the Senate has been lukewarm at best, even among Republican leaders. And that could pose problems for the measure in the upper chamber. If Democrats lock down in opposition to the proposal, two GOP defections would be enough to keep it from getting the required 24 voters in the 40-seat Senate.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told The News Service of Florida in an interview that he believes the idea "should be given every consideration by the Senate, and it will be, the same as our Senate priorities will be carefully evaluated by the House."
Personally, though, Negron said he shares the reservations of some lawyers and legal observers who have spoken against the bill in the House --- chiefly, that the measure could force judges to consider their careers both before and after moving to the bench.
"I have concerns ... about making sure that we are not inadvertently creating a problem with independence where you would have a judge, because a judge has to take care of her or his family, thinking about where they are going to land after their time is up," Negron, an attorney, said.
The Senate has proven to be the graveyard in the past for House proposals to overhaul the appellate courts. In 2011, then-House Speaker Dean Cannon pushed to, among other things, split the Florida Supreme Court into two panels: one dealing with criminal cases and the other handling civil cases.
The proposal was dramatically downsized on the Senate floor, and the notion of breaking up the court was dropped altogether.
Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who is influential on judicial issues in the Senate, also cast doubt on the term-limit idea while saying it should be discussed during the legislative session that starts March 7.
"I'm not persuaded at this point," said Simmons, who resisted Cannon's proposal. "And I will be happy to hear what the arguments are in favor of it. I just think that there are significant countervailing arguments against it."
Simmons, an attorney, pointed to the difficulty of judges re-entering private practice after a decade on the courts, but also underscored the lifetime appointments given to federal judges to limit political interference.
"You want to know the difference between our country and all those other nations out there; (it) is the fact that we have a judiciary that keeps everybody else in line," Simmons said.
Business groups and conservative legal organizations are also bucking Corcoran's campaign. The Florida Justice Reform Institute, an organization that backs tort-reform bills often favored by Republicans, has announced its opposition to the proposal.
"Term limits are not going to ensure the best judges are on the bench," wrote William Large, president of the institute. "Instead they will only ensure that the best and brightest Florida lawyers rarely apply, and even when good judges manage to end up on the bench, they will be kicked off just as they are gaining the institutional knowledge and experience that make for great judges."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also opposes the idea.
House Republicans say that the fears of the proposal's critics are overblown and that the voters should ultimately be allowed to decide the amendment's fate. Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, questioned the idea that judges might be worried about finding employment after their time on the bench.
"I think in my experience as a litigator, ex-judges are very, very marketable," he said.
Since being filed on Feb. 9, a Senate version of the proposal (SJR 482) --- sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton --- has not been scheduled for a committee hearing. Senate Judiciary Chairman Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, was circumspect Tuesday when asked about the proposal, saying he hasn't taken a position on it.
"Senator Hutson's going to need to see if this committee and the members of the committee --- is that something they would be willing to look at?" Steube said.