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Columns

Term Limits Won’t Give Us Better Judges

February 9, 2017 - 2:45pm

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.

Comments

All State judges in Florida have mandatory retirement at age 70, although that can stretch to about age 72 depending on where a particular judge is in his most recent term when the judge turns 70. Article V Section 8 of the Florida Constitution. The term limits and age proposals apply only to State judges, not to Federal Judges who have life tenure under the US Constitution.

Term limits for judges is a very bad idea. Term limits in many of these even elected office works against good government. Many issues are very complex. When people are constantly fighting for political power it enhances the power of money. We should fight this idea hard because it would create a much more politicized judiciary in Florida. It would not work in the favor of justice. Yet another right wing Republican ploy to seize more power!!

.."a more politicized judiciary in Florida"... than it is NOW??? You meant that as a 'joke' "Catherine,..right?? (Or, you work for a judge, or are married to a judge, or to a lawyer "on the short list" to become a judge; "On the other hand", if perchance you ARE a judge, then you are EXACTLY one of those "judges" we are disgusted with and talking about ! )

It has long been said "Power Corrupts -- Absolute Power Corrupts ABSOLUTELY". ALL Lawyer, like all of "people"(?) gain increasing comfort in their positions as time goes on. I do NOT want to see Juris Prudence in Florida (or ANYWHERE) to get so comfortable in themselves that "They become the LAW", and Written Law gets sidetracked. NEW JUDGES will ensure that "Good 'ol boy-ism" does NOT become our AMERICAN (and FLORIDA) ~L~A~W~!

Term limits for Appellate judges is a bad idea. It would discourage very able candidates from serving in that position, as they would less likely leave a law practice to do so, only to then have to restart a career once their time is up. Agree w the author that judges mostly get better at judging w experience on the bench.

How do YOU know that it would discourage anyone from anything. Do YOU hold the power of TRUTH in your hands to decide the motivations of ANYONE? Where is your proof.... or is it your OPINION?

"Tampaguy" your mind has obviously been turned to mush from being so close, for so long, to the "seat of twisted, corrupt politics" in Tampa. A "two-State solution" would be a good answer: Florida (north), and Hispiami (south/ with a 'Tampa capitol'). YEAH, "THAT'S the Ticket"!!!

"Apologies" 'Tg"...Thought your response was to "Swampfox" below...

Lately, many judges at "ALL" levels have been legislating from the bench. That is not their job description nor is it to twist the US Constitution in order to meet their agenda. My assessment is this: Lawyers are a necessary evil and lawyers in politics are the worse. They have screwed it up for all of us and its time it stops.

Would love to see you on the CRC.

Hear, hear!

Your Judge Eaton is an old-fashioned example of a Judge who didn't think he was ABOVE the law; the same can't be said for the GLUT of self-centered lawyers who narcistically believe that "THEY are the absolute last word" (until they get indicted, impeached or prosecuted) and believe they should be "Judges" right out of law school. To Hell with THAT! Age 50 is an optimal age to "elevate" a lawyer to "lifetime Valhalla". A good example of a failed Federal Judge (in fact, the "posterboy" for failed and/or corrupt Federal Judges) is Alcee Hastings [24 year U.S. Congressman from the 20th District (impeached in 1980 for soliciting a bribe and perjury; he was under investigation for sexual harassment of a staff member; and publically said "We have no rules, we can do what we want in Congress". Read about this reprehensible example of a former Federal Judge in Peter Scweitzer's book "EXTORTION". As a former Florida Lieutenant Governor, I'M SURE YOU ARE WELL AWARE OF ALSEE HASTINGS ! TERM LIMITS will DEFINITELY give us better judges ! (AND furthermore, ALL judges should "stand for election" and publically campaign before their constituents (Florida Voters), rather than rediculously "continuing them on the bench", "yes or no", when Voters know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about their "idiosyncracies" [only lawyers, who come before their bench, are familiar with their reputation (good OR bad)... and I've seen lawyers, who when they became Judges absolutely embarrass, excoriate and demean their fellow "Bar Members" publically in their courtroom]. Judges have "clay feet" just like OTHER politicians; "exaltedness" only exists in their own minds...

C Breeze, your hem has unraveled again.

"Hello" Half-wit,...How ya been?

Right on point - and well said. Want a good, relatively impartial and objective Judiciary, give tenure. Otherwise justice is a farce because it is for sale.

Well reasoned and stated.

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