The Florida Bar
www.floridabar.org
The Florida Bar Journal
May, 2016 Volume 90, No. 5
The Informed Voters Project

by Linda Leali

Page 22



In recent years and throughout the United States, there has been a significant increase in money being funneled into judicial elections in an effort to target judges whose rulings are unpopular, regardless of whether the decisions are reasoned applications of the law. The fairness and impartiality of our courts is threatened by these powerful special interests who are seeking to tip the scales of justice in their favor. The success or failure of special interest efforts to weaken the courts rests on their ability to mislead voters, particularly if voters lack sufficient knowledge about how impartial courts uphold the rule of law.

The Informed Voters Project (IVP) was founded in 2014 by the National Association of Women Judges in a nationwide effort to educate citizens about the role of the judiciary in our democracy. IVP’s primary mission is to educate voters in a nonpartisan manner about how judges are selected, how an average person can obtain information about a judicial candidate, and the role of the judiciary as the third but equal branch of government. In Florida, IVP is co-chaired by Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente and myself.

Public Service Announcement
To help carry out its mission, IVP created a public service announcement that was funded by The Florida Bar titled, “Fair and Free,” narrated by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and written by Jonathan Shapiro (Boston Legal). This public service announcement won a regional Emmy award in 2014 and currently plays in jury rooms in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. The announcement is available for broadcasting in English, Spanish, and Mandarin, and is also closed-captioned for the hearing impaired.

Voluntary Bar and Community Organization Affiliates
In Florida, IVP works to accomplish this mission through the assistance of many Florida bar members and strong partnerships with voluntary bar associations. Among these project partners in Florida are the Florida Association for Women Lawyers along with its various chapters throughout the state of Florida, the Constitutional Judiciary Committee of The Florida Bar, and NAWJ. The organizations encourage members of The Florida Bar and voluntary bar organizations to become involved as either educators regarding our courts or project partners whose organizations would like to assist in preserving and protecting the impartiality of our courts. We have multiple turn-key presentations that are available for partner organization’s use. Partners are also highlighted on both the website and in other materials. By working together, we can increase the potential for success that our courts will remain fair and free.

Community Outreach
At its core, IVP is about educating citizens at a grassroots level. Much of these efforts are accomplished by speaking at community organization meetings and local colleges. A typical Florida IVP presentation is made by a lawyer or judge or multiple lawyers and judges and is conducted with the assistance of a PowerPoint presentation, which contains a video component and relevant flyers. These presentations are designed first to educate the public about the judiciary’s role as a third and equal branch of government charged with protecting our constitutional rights, along with the challenges facing the judiciary. Through IVP volunteers, the audience learns that legislators make decisions based on the desires of their constituents or voters, their own beliefs, or their political party’s agenda. In contrast, judges are required to follow the law and should not be influenced by politics, special interest groups, money, public opinions, or their own personal beliefs.

The next goal at any IVP community presentation is to educate citizens about judicial selection processes in Florida. The public is generally unaware that Florida circuit and county court judges are elected by the voters in nonpartisan elections and that appellate court judges and justices of the Florida Supreme Court are selected through a nonpartisan merit selection process.

Finally, audience participants learn about the educational resources that are available so that they are better informed. While a typical IVP presentation would introduce many of the available resources, the presentations also ask the public what important characteristics they want to see in judges. Traditionally, responses have included such qualities or characteristics as impartial and unbiased, fair-minded, attentive, respectful, honest, neutral, and professional. Participants are directed to nonpartisan websites where information regarding judicial candidate biographies and backgrounds may be found, bar association surveys, the Judicial Qualifications Commission website, and other valuable resources.

Get Involved
IVP has created a website for its project that provides more information and an outlet for both regular citizens and members of The Florida Bar. Check it out at ivp.nawj.org. IVP is also on social media and can be found at facebook.com/informedvoterproject and twitter.com/ivpfairfree.

If you or your organization would like to learn more about how you can be involved, you can contact project co-chair Linda Leali at lleali@lealilaw.com.

Linda Leali is co-chair of the Florida Informed Voter’s Project and a member of The Florida Bar Constitutional Judiciary Committee.

[Revised: 04-26-2016]