By Gary Blankenship
After years of gains, diversity among Florida’s judiciary — and on the judicial nominating commissions that choose many judicial candidates — is slipping, according to Bar President Eugene Pettis.
Pettis raised the issue at the January 31 Board of Governors meeting, citing statistics on the falling number of minorities serving as judges in Florida.
He reported that he raised the issue during a recent meeting with Gov. Rick Scott and said that the governor agreed that the judiciary should be reflective of the communities it serves.
In preparing for that meeting, Pettis said he looked at the makeup of the judiciary and the JNCs.
“The numbers are not good; the statistics are not good,” Pettis said.
“When you look at where we stand . . . we are not achieving what I think we hold out as our goal. Out of 981 members of our state court judiciary — from our Supreme Court to our district and circuit and county courts — diversity is very, very scarce. . . .
“The numbers are going backwards, as far as diversity on the bench.”
He said there are only three Asian-Americans on the bench, two as circuit judges and one as a county court judge.
There are no Asian district court of appeal judges. Of a total of 61, six are African-American and two are Hispanic.
Out of 594 total circuit court judges, 26 are African-American and 58 are Hispanic.
Among 319 county court judges, 32 are African-American and 26 are Hispanic.
“The numbers are really trending down,” Pettis said, adding that judges have approached him, pointing out that development.
Some circuits have had only one black judge on the bench and those groundbreaking judges are retiring and not being replaced by, or added to, with other minorities.
Pettis said he will be discussing the issue with President-elect Greg Coleman, President-elect Designate Ray Abadin, and Bar Executive Director John F. Harkness, Jr., as well as the Bar’s Executive Committee to see how that issue can be addressed through JNC appointments. Like the judiciary, JNC membership and applications have shown a decline in minority participation.
Of the 140 JNC applications submitted at press time, three African-American males, five African-American females, 13 Hispanic males, four Hispanic females, and four Asian-American males had applied.
In recent years, the numbers of African- Americans on JNCs declined from almost 25 percent to less that 4 percent, while the number of Hispanics has declined slightly to less than 10 percent.
“The numbers are below dismal,” Pettis said. “It’s not a reflection on the people who are here [who have applied for JNC service]; it’s those who are not here.”
Pettis added that it is not the governor’s fault for falling diversity on JNCs, when the Bar fails to come up with minority applicants among its nominees for JNC service. (Under state law, the governor directly appoints five members to each JNC and selects four members from slates nominated by the Bar, with the appointments staggered over four years. This year, the Bar is nominating candidates for two seats on each JNC. See Notice, page 3.)
“We’re not getting the people to apply. I don’t know what the problem is, but if we don’t look at it, it’s going to be embarrassing where our courts are so disproportionate to the mirror of our society,” he said.
Pettis encouraged board members to reach out and recruit suitable applicants for the JNCs.
“Is that handholding? I don’t know what to call it. But I know it works,” Pettis said. “When you see people who you think would make you proud and would make this Bar proud, take five minutes to call them and ask them to please put their names in.”
Pettis said he was extending the original February 11 deadline to March 21 to allow for recruitment of JNC applicants (the Bar needs at least 156 applicants for the 52 vacancies).
“Let’s connect with our constituents and try to create some diversity on the JNCs, which is the beginning of the pipeline for getting a bench that is reflective of our communities.”