By Gary Blankenship
With help from The Florida Bar, the National Association of Women Judges has launched in eight states a voter education project on the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary and keeping special interests from influencing judicial elections.
The Informed Voters — Fair Judges campaign kicked off January 15 through an Internet press conference with a five-minute video that featured former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who talked about the dangers of special interests trying to impact the judiciary.
The Bar’s Executive Committee approved contributing $50,000 to the project, which among other things paid for the production of the video with Justice O’Connor.
The Florida part of the campaign will be headed up by Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente. Florida is one of eight states — the others are Alaska, California, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Washington — selected as pilots for the project.
“We’re very enthusiastic that Florida will take this national project and make it work in Florida in partnership with The Florida Bar,” Pariente said. “It was developed on a national scale by judges who realized that attacks on the state judiciary will be ongoing.”
Pariente learned first-hand in 2012 when she and Justices Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince had their retention elections on the Supreme Court challenged by special interests. That effort failed in the face of a coordinated campaign by the justices and numerous voter education efforts, including the Bar’s The Vote’s In Your Court education campaign about merit retention elections and the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary.
But a lesson from that experience is “that an ongoing education, information effort, interactive both in person and with social and broadcast media, is needed to ensure the conversation is continued with our citizens,” Pariente said.
The web conference was sponsored by LexisNexis and included a video statement from Bar President Eugene Pettis. He said that surveys that show a broad lack of knowledge about basic civics issues, including the importance of checks and balances between branches of government, underscore the need for continuing education efforts. They are also needed because of organized attempts to defeat judges as a way to control the courts.
Pettis noted the 2012 Florida retention campaign and attempts by powerful interests to defeat the three justices. “What the backers of that effort did not anticipate was the uprising of citizens in all parties stating that such partisan politics is not acceptable in our court system,” he said. “. . . That crisis has passed, but the need for civics education remains urgent.”
Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, NAWJ president and a judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, said, “Each day in American courts, thousands of judges preside over cases ranging from traffic offenses to tax and land disputes, child abuse, and murder. The judicial system reflects the fabric of life in this country. And unlike legislators, a judge must stand apart from political and partisan ideas, and ensure each litigant’s case receives a fair and impartial hearing, with a resolution based on the law. That is the foundation of the public’s trust and confidence in the courts.”
The web conference was moderated by Joan Irion, a California appellate judge, who said the efforts to control state judicial elections — frequently from out-of-state interests — must be addressed.
“Something very troubling is happening in America, something we can’t ignore or sweep under the carpet,” she said. “Our judges and courts are under attack and our very court system is under attack by special interests. . . . “The Informed Voters – Fair Judges project is designed to alert us all to these issues and support a fair and impartial judiciary and impartiality for all from the courts.”
The video with Justice O’Connor is available on a special website set up to promote the NAWJ’s independent voter project campaign: . The video talks about dangers from special interests trying to control courts and win decisions that are not based on law. The site solicits volunteers, provides information about judges and the courts, and provides a way for interested groups to seek a speaker on the subject.
“In America, courts exist to protect people, resolve disputes and ensure fairness and justice for those who enter the legal system,” Justice O’Connor says in the video. “When voters support candidates based solely on the popularity of their past decisions, or how they might decide cases in the future, they create an atmosphere that undermines fairness, equality, and impartiality.”
Pariente said the Florida efforts will continue with a training course for the Bar’s Benchmarks civics education program that was scheduled to include the NAWJ campaign January 24 at the Bar’s Winter Meeting in Orlando. She said the Florida Association for Women Lawyers has signed on to promote the campaign at the local level.
Also, there is work underway to develop online webinars to train lawyers and judges on presenting speeches and seminars on judicial impartiality and the justice system, and to promote the campaign on social media outlets.
Pariente said the campaign is nonpartisan and won’t promote any particular judicial candidate. And she said her experiences in 2012 showed such an effort will pay dividends.
“I learned that voters do not want politics or partisan interests to play a part in their judiciary, that voters want judges who are accountable to the law,” she said. “I learned that when properly communicated to, voters appreciate the historical and present significance of the third branch of government that will protect their rights as outlined in the Constitution.
“But I also learned it is not an automatic yes. Voters and citizens need to be informed.”