Constitutional Law

Writ asks Florida's top court to block assignment of senior judges 'for unlimited periods of time'

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A petition filed with Florida’s top court this week seeks a major shake-up in the way judges are assigned to hear cases in at least two counties and perhaps throughout the state.

Although retired “senior” judges helped reduce a significant backlog of foreclosure litigation caused by the mortgage meltdown of the Great Recession, that crisis is over and it is time to go back to the system anticipated by the Florida constitution, says a petition for a writ of prohibition filed by two Pinellas County lawyers for clients Diane and Dominic Bengivengo.

A Tampa Bay Business Journal story reporting on the filing doesn’t expressly state what interest the Bengivengos have in the matter, but the writ challenges an administrative order by the chief judge of the state’s 6th Judicial Circuit, covering Pinellas and Pasco Counties. It authorizes the assignment of senior judges in mortgage foreclosure cases.

Under the state constitution senior judges are authorized to perform “temporary duty” only, not to sit on the bench for “unlimited periods of time” as is currently occurring, contend attorneys Matthew Weidner and Michael Fuino in their filing.

“It should seem quite extraordinary to this court the fact that every single supreme court justice and every single appellate, circuit and county court judge sitting on benches across the entire state appears before the public on ballots every six years but senior judges, who now serve in perpetual terms, are never presented to the general public,” the two write.

“Surely this court must recognize that the Florida Constitution does not contemplate, and in fact it expressly forbids, the permanent maintenance of a corps of ‘super’ senior judges, who sit entirely immune from the constitutional restrictions that every other judge in this state complies with.”

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