By Jan Pudlow
Broward County’s unwieldy primary election for judges — 42 candidates including 15 incumbents in 20 races — inspired Sen. Jeremy Ring to file a proposed constitutional amendment doubling the numbers of years one must be a lawyer to run.
It would require lawyer candidates seeking judgeships on the county and circuit bench to have a decade of Bar membership, instead of the current five years. That would make the eligibility requirements for trial judges the same as appellate judges.
“The whole process of judicial elections concerns me. Where do I start?” said Ring, D-Margate, the new chair of the Senate’s Government Accountability Committee.
“You’ve got a county the size of Broward and you have a judicial election, and no one has any idea who they are voting for. Name identification is minimal, as it should be, by the way. They are allowed to say next to nothing while campaigning. [Incumbent judges] have to raise money for the whole county, while trying to handle a docket on the bench. . . . At least give someone a sense that whoever is running for judge that they have a level of experience.”
The News’ review of candidates in the August primary in Broward County revealed that none of the 22 candidates for the circuit bench had been a member of the Bar for less than 10 years, and all incumbent judges retained their seats.
In races for Broward County judgeships, of the 20 candidates, three contenders had less than a decade of Bar membership, and only one won the election: John D. Fry, admitted to the Bar in July 2003, defeated a more seasoned lawyer admitted in 1976.
Ring said the issue also occurred in Dade County.
The News’ review of elections in Miami-Dade County showed that Michaelle Gonzalez-Paulson, admitted to the Bar in 2002, unseated Judge Flora Seff, admitted to the Bar in 1980.
“You could have judges on the bench 20-plus years, honored over and over, and top-rated, and . . . lose to some kid fresh out of law school,” Ring said.
“I have a problem with the entire process. At one point, we were advocating merit selection and retention, but the feedback we got was people thought we were taking someone’s vote away. This seems fairly well-received.”
Ring’s bill — Senate Joint Resolution 140 — seeks to amend Section 8 of Article V of the State Constitution. The issue would be placed on the ballot and require 60 percent of Floridians’ votes to pass.
On December 7, Rep. Ari Porth, D- Coral Springs, filed House Joint Resolution 47, which is identical to Ring's bill.