Guide for Florida Voters: Judicial and Merit Retention Elections FAQ
Florida Judges and Judicial Elections FAQ
In Florida, both county and circuit judges are trial judges. County judges hear criminal misdemeanors – those are crimes that have possible sentences of up to one year in jail – and civil cases in which the amount in dispute is $30,000 or less. Circuit judges deal with criminal felonies, domestic relations, juvenile matters, probate issues and civil cases in which the disputed amount is greater than $30,000. Judges on the five District Courts of Appeal and the Florida Supreme Court review the decisions of county and circuit trial courts.
In nonpartisan elections, candidates appear on the ballot without reference to any political party (e.g. Democrat or Republican). Florida law requires judicial elections to be nonpartisan to preserve the impartiality of the judge’s position. Also, judicial candidates are prohibited from making predictions and promises about issues that could arise once they are on the court because their job is to make impartial decisions that relate to the law on the cases before them.
No. Currently, most circuit and county court judges are elected. If there is a mid-term vacancy – for example, if a judge retires, resigns or dies before the end of the judge’s term – the governor fills the position by appointment. Additionally, Florida Supreme Court justices and District Court of Appeal judges are appointed by the governor and then run in merit retention elections to stay in office.
Most judicial races appear on the primary ballot and then on a subsequent ballot in the general election only if no candidate receives a majority of votes during the primary. While this means that many judicial races never appear on the general election ballot, it allows for the second round of voting during the general election if necessary.
A person is qualified to run for judicial election after earning a law degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. All candidates for trial judge also must be members of The Florida Bar for at least five years. Appellate judges must be members of The Florida Bar for at least 10 years. Furthermore, judicial candidates must live in the geographic areas they will serve when they take office.
Circuit judges and county court judges are elected for six-year terms. To retain their seats, they must be re-elected. Judges who were appointed to county or circuit court through a vacancy must sit for election at the end of the remainder of their appointed terms. Appellate judges, appointed by the governor, run in merit retention elections for six-year terms. Judges do not have term limits, however, judges may not serve in Florida past the age of 75 except upon temporary assignment.
Florida requires that judges be elected or retained by the voters, so the power over who holds these important positions rests with the voters. Judges make decisions on a wide range of issues large and small including traffic, small claims, landlord-tenant, personal injury, criminal, death penalty, probate, guardianship and others.
Trial judges preside over trials and hearings. In court, judges make decisions on the acceptability of testimony and evidence. Judges also ensure that jurors understand the law. When a jury is not required, the judge decides the case based on applicable law and the judge’s knowledge of the law. District Court of Appeal judges decide appeals of trial court decisions. Supreme Court justices decide death penalty appeals and appeals from decisions of the appellate courts; resolve conflicts among appellate courts; and oversee the administration of Florida’s court system.
Judges must be impartial and fair and understand the law. Knowledge in one particular area is not more important than the other. Judges should be selected based on their legal abilities, temperament and commitment to follow the law and uphold the law regardless of their personal view.
Merit Retention Election FAQ
Florida law requires Florida Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges to be placed on the ballot in nonpartisan elections every six years so voters can determine whether they should remain on their courts for another six-year term. These are called “merit retention” elections. This year, five Supreme Court justices and 28 appeals court judges will be on the ballot.
A “Yes” vote means you want the judge or justice to remain on the court for another six-year term. A “No” vote means you want the judge or justice to be removed from the court. The majority of voters decides.
No. Your vote determines whether each judge or justice should remain on the court. They are not running against opponents or each other. Merit retention elections are nonpartisan.
The governor appoints judges or justices from lists submitted by Judicial Nominating Commissions, which screen candidates and make recommendations based on their merits. Newly appointed judges go on the ballot for the first time within two years after appointment. If the voters retain them, they then go on the ballot again every six years.
Canon 7 of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct forbids judges and justices from saying how they will decide future cases. Judges and justices must remain impartial and decide cases without regard to their personal views or beliefs.
Yes. Records of judges’ decisions can be found on the decision pages of the websites for the District Courts of Appeal and the Florida Supreme Court, accessible through Florida Courts website. In addition, court arguments are webcast live and archived on court websites.
In the mid-1970s, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment requiring that the merit retention system be used for all appellate judges. This happened in response to public concern over abuses under the former system of contested elections.
The Florida Division of Elections maintains a searchable database of election results since 1978. Merit retention elections occur only during general elections in even numbered years if any appeals court judges or Supreme Court justices are nearing the end of their terms.