Early in my legal career I had the privilege to serve as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Joe Eaton. Born in Monticello, Judge Eaton was a star athlete in college. He also played professional baseball. During WW II, Judge Eaton served as a flight commander in the Air Corps and flew bombing missions over German missile sites (D-Day was his 51st bombing mission).
After the war Judge Eaton attended law school and upon graduation was a prosecutor. At the age of 33 he became a judge. When he was 47, President Lyndon Johnson made him a federal judge. During the more than 40 years that Judge Eaton served on the bench he earned a reputation as a constitutional scholar and was widely regarded as a brilliant judge.
There are currently two proposals in the Florida Legislature that would take away one of the most important qualities of great judges like Judge Joe Eaton -- experience. These proposals could dramatically change the judiciary in Florida -- in particular, Florida’s appeals courts and Supreme Court.
HJR 1 would limit appellate judges to only 12 years on the bench. SJR 482 would require a person to be at least 50 years old to serve on the court. The Senate proposal would also dramatically limit how long Judges could serve.
Had these legislative proposals been in effect at the national level, some very notable judges would not have been eligible to serve, including Chief Justice John Marshall (who was 46 when appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and served on the court for 34 years), and conservative icon Chief Justice William Rehnquist (who was 47 when appointed and served 32 years).
Even the current nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, would be ineligible to serve under a current legislative proposal, because he is only 49 years old. Likewise, Justice Antonin Scalia, whose seat Gorsuch was nominated to fill, was first appointed to the court at age 46.
Some of our very best judges go on the bench at an early age and serve for many years. When it comes to deciding matters of life and liberty, there is simply no substitute for experience. However, denying the citizens of Florida the benefit of experienced appellate judges is not the only reason these legislative proposals are bad.
Stability on the courts leads to settled law -- particularly on controversial subjects. The opposite is true with term limits for judges. This should especially concern the business community. Constant turnover in our appellate courts will likely result in conflicting opinions, frequent reversal of legal precedent and a level of uncertainty in the legal arena that could cause some companies to do business elsewhere.
The driving force behind these proposals is the idea that there are “activist judges” who have made “bad decisions.” This reasoning is exactly why our Founding Fathers decided to give federal judges life tenure. They wanted to divorce our judges from politics. The founders wanted independent judges who are free to apply the law to the facts of a case -- without worrying about the political consequences of their decisions.
Judges should never be replaced simply because we disagree with their decisions. Such reasoning undermines the very foundation of our system of government by eroding the independence of our judiciary. Term limits for judges will not give us better judges or better decisions but instead will diminish the delicate balance of power between our three branches of government.
Jeff Kottkamp is an AV-rated attorney who has been licensed to practice law in Florida for 28 years. He served as Florida’s 17th lieutenant governor.