By Gary Blankenship
The Bar’s successful voter information program for November’s merit retention judicial contests should be the foundation for a continuing education effort about the courts and their functions, according to Bar President Gwynne Young.
Reporting to the Board of Governors at its recent Amelia Island meeting, Young recounted the Bar’s efforts to tell voters about merit retention.
“If we learned anything in this, it is that we cannot stop our education effort,” she said. “Those who went out [as part of the education program] saw how little many people, even lawyers, know about the third branch and the role of the judiciary and lawyers in society.”
Young noted the education effort was discussed at the Bar’s strategic planning retreat in November, and recommendations from that retreat would be coming to the board at future meetings.
This year’s retention races featured active opposition for three justices up for merit retention — the first time any justice had drawn high-profile opposition in 20 years. The election also saw the Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Florida vote to oppose all three justices — the first time in the merit selection and retention era a political party became involved in a nonpartisan judicial race.
The high-profile Supreme Court contests also had implications for the 15 district court of appeal judges on the retention ballot. Although none was directly challenged, previous opposition in Supreme Court races had translated into lower retention votes in some DCA races, particularly in the northern part of the state.
But this year, “On November 6, we had the elections and all the judges and justices who were up for merit retention were retained and they were retained basically with margins that judges would receive when there was no opposition,” Young said. “I think that is a true compliment to everyone on this board and to our merit retention education program.”
She reiterated that the Bar campaign was not to support any particular judge or justice but to provide neutral information about merit retention, the function of judges and the courts, and how to find information about the judges and justices up for retention. The Bar also sought to dispute misleading claims made about the courts and various court decisions and actions.
“The purpose of this merit retention education program was to educate the public and hopefully show them where they could find information about the judges and justices and feel comfortable in voting,” Young said.
The success could be seen, she said, in comparing 2008 and 2012 voting returns. In 2008, 75 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the presidential election also voted in the Supreme Court merit retention races on the ballot that year. In 2012, the figure went up to 85 percent.
“I really have to believe our merit retention education program helped get that increase in voters,” Young said.
As part of the campaign, the Bar arranged for lawyers to speak to civic groups around the state, distributed 360,000 voter guides, and used social media to inform voters. President-elect Gene Pettis noted that the Bar president typically visits all the state’s major newspaper editorial boards over his or her presidential year, but Young compressed all those visits into her first four months to discuss with those boards the importance of the merit selection and retention system and on keeping politics out of the court system.
“I don’t think the troops go in any direction the generals don’t lead them,” he said, and he led the board in a round of applause for Young. “Gwynne did in the first four or five months of her tenure what most presidents do in the entire year.”
Young praised the Bar’s Public Information and Bar Services office, led by Francine Walker, and a steering committee, chaired by board member Sandy Diamond, that met first weekly, and then biweekly, to oversee the program.
The board was thanked by Fourth Circuit Judge Brian Davis, who attended the meeting to welcome the board to Nassau County. He noted besides the merit retention education program, the Bar had also opposed Amendment 5 on the November ballot, which would have changed the state constitution to allow Senate confirmation of Supreme Court appointees and make it easier for the Legislature to revoke a court procedural rule.
“Jacksonville’s namesake, Andrew Jackson, said once that the rights guaranteed the people in the Constitution mean nothing; they are a mere bubble, absent the virtuous and independent judiciary,” Davis said. “Only because of your work in this last election cycle was that independence protected and the rights of the people to the rule of law and an independent judiciary maintained.”