by Gwynne A. Young
Gather together 10 “regular-folk” Floridians, and only one will understand judicial merit retention.
In focus groups across the state, about nine out of 10 people did not understand merit retention, and many associated the phrase with teacher merit pay.
Obviously, there is a need to teach about the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary, where judges are free to make decisions based on the law, unafraid of political pressures. Voters need to be armed with accurate information on how the merit selection and retention system for appellate judges works in our state.
This is especially critical as the countdown to the November 6 election looms nearer, and three Supreme Court justices and 15 appellate judges are up for merit retention.
I want voters to make it all the way to the bottom of the ballot and be informed enough to feel comfortable voting in the merit retention races. Unfortunately, about 30 percent of the time, the unfamiliar names of justices and judges — with no party affiliation — often get short shrift and are ignored altogether on the ballot. Or, they can fall victim to misinformation campaigns and be unfairly labeled “activist judges” based on one unpopular ruling, rather than the totality of their work and their qualifications to hold judicial office.
This past spring, The Florida Bar Board of Governors launched “The Vote’s in YOUR COURT” public education program, continuing the Bar’s tradition of providing public education since the first merit retention election in 1978.
As you read this, over 250,000 “Guide for Florida Voters” in English and 25,000 in Spanish, sponsored by the Bar, have been distributed to voters. The guide is packed with questions and answers about Florida judges, judicial elections, and merit retention. The League of Women Voters has distributed a million of its own voter guides. The guide is available in English, Spanish, and Creole on The Florida Bar’s website — www.floridabar.org/thevotesinyourcourt — and is full of facts about the history and purpose of merit retention, as well as public radio interviews with Bar leaders, videos, and biographical information about the justices and judges up for merit retention. The Bar is using social media to spread the word about “The Vote’s in YOUR COURT.” Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for the latest news on the program.
I am pleased to report that presentations are being made, and I anticipate that hundreds will be completed by November 6 to civic groups, voluntary bars, and many of the largest 25 law firms (to lawyers and their staff) all across Florida. Bar leaders and members have heard the call for volunteers and have taken webcast trainings before publicly speaking about merit retention.
Included in their presentations is a six-minute video starring yours truly, Immediate Past Bar President Scott Hawkins, National Bar Association Immediate Past President Daryl Parks, Young Lawyers Immediate Past President Sean Desmond, and Cuban American Bar President Vivian de las Cuevas-Diaz.
Scott talks about how, in the wake of scandals on the Florida Supreme Court, Floridians took steps to isolate our system of justice from politics. In 1971, then Gov. Reubin Askew voluntarily gave up his authority to appoint judges in favor of merit selection, and in 1976 an overwhelming 76 percent of Floridians voted to put merit selection and retention in the state constitution. As Scott points out, “This system has worked uniformly under seven governors, both Republican and Democratic.”
I explain how the justices and judges are selected through a vigorous process called merit selection, and how newly appointed judges go before voters for the first time within two years after appointment. If the voters retain them, they then go on the ballot again every six years.
Daryl speaks of his pride in Florida’s system “to keep that proper buffer that allows our judges to serve and make decisions that they find to be just, and keeps them away from improper influences….”
Sean warns: “If you have a judge who is afraid that if they make a decision that is not going to be popular, and politics are weighing into their decision, then we are starting to chip away at the fundamental basis of having a separation of powers in the first place.”
Vivian shares how lawyers are often asked who they should vote for in judicial races, and how “it’s very important as lawyers in our community that we continue to inform our families, our friends, and the general public” about our judiciary.
For more than four decades, Florida’s merit selection and retention process has proven its value to ensure our citizens are served by justices and judges of quality and integrity.
Now, it’s up to Florida’s voters to keep the system working by casting educated votes.
Thank you to all who have helped spread the facts about merit retention. As the election draws near, there is greater urgency to keep educating the public to ensure their merit retention vote is heard. I ask each of you to continue to assist in spreading the facts about merit selection and retention to your families, friends, and the general public.
The vote’s in your court. Judicial merit retention. Know the facts. Please vote on November 6.