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Bush made diversity in judicial appointments a priority

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Bush made diversity in judicial appointments a priority

Mark D. Killian
Managing Editor
Gov. Jeb Bush has appointed 341 Florida judges during his two terms in office. Of those,103 are women, 46 are Hispanic, and 33 are African American.

“I passionately believe in diversity, not as a token political statement, but as part of an overall strategy to propel Florida forward,” Gov. Bush told newly appointed judicial nominating commission members at a recent training program in Tampa, cosponsored by The Florida Bar and the Governor’s Office.

“We should be looking forward, and we should be embracing diversity, and we should be tearing down barriers for people to be able to pursue their dreams irrespective of their gender or color of their skin or ethnic background or nationality.”

Diversity became a key issue for the JNCs in 2000 after Bush wrote an open letter to members of the Bar saying Florida’s judiciary did not reflect the state’s diversity, and that his efforts to increase minority representation on the bench were stymied by a lack of diversity in pools of applicants and slates of finalists. Bush suggested the low number of minorities applying for vacancies could be because “they have not received a fair shot in the past and do not think they will receive one now.”

Since that time, there has been an ongoing Bar effort to reach out to minority bar associations to inform them about the JNC process and encourage minority lawyers to apply for judicial openings. There also has been a greater emphasis on placing notices of judicial openings in minority and women’s publications, and seeking diversity when making JNC appointments.

Bush — most likely making his last address to the mostly lawyer groups that nominate candidates for judgeships — praised the Bar for its commitment to diversity in the JNC process.

Also during Bush’s administration the legislature in 2001amended the procedure by which people are appointed to the nine-member JNCs, greatly reducing the Bar’s role in the appointment process. The governor now makes all JNC appointments and the Bar has no part in investigating or disciplining JNC members. The Bar, which previously had three direct appoints to each JNC, now submits the names of three lawyer nominees to the governor for each of four positions on every JNC.

Bush said over the years he has come to better appreciate the JNC process and while electing judges has merit, he said the thoroughness of the JNC process “creates a more robust” means of selecting judges.

“I wish I could appoint all judges and allow the judges to independently go about their business,” Bush said.

The annual training session’s curriculum put together by the Bar’s Judicial Nominating Procedures Committee — chaired by Judge Cynthia Imperato — included discussions on the judicial selection process and interviewing judicial candidates, and training on the Sunshine Law, public records, and ethics.

“On behalf of The Florida Bar, I will say to Gov. Bush. . . his appointments have been remarkably effective and valuable in terms of diversity throughout the state of Florida,” said Bar President Hank Coxe.

Coxe also told the new commissioners their job is one of the most important in the state because once appointed “for all practical purposes” that judge will serve for as long as he or she wants to serve.

“That to me just totally underscores the seriousness of what you do,” Coxe said.

Last year the state’s JNCs submitted the names of 284 nominees to the governor to fill 75 judicial vacancies.

“I think the state will be better off for it because we have worked hard to [pick people] of high integrity, people who have a shared judicial philosophy, people of diverse backgrounds that have unique experiences, people who have humility, people that I think would be good jurists,” Bush said, adding that commissioners need to set high standards and search for candidates that have both professional and life experiences.

Being in court can be a very intimidating and daunting experience, Bush said, and it is up to the judge to make everybody feel comfortable.

“If they do their jobs wrong, it can be a very intimidating experience,” Bush said. “So life experiences matter a lot in my opinion.”

JNC also must look for candidates with good management skills, a great work ethic, and a sense of purpose, Bush said.

“That they wake up each day with joy in their hearts and pinching themselves and saying, ‘My gosh, I’m a judge. What an unbelievable honor,’ and therefore work even harder to be able to justify the faith and confidence the electorate or the governor had in them.”

Perhaps more than anything else, Bush said, “Being honest, truthful, and fair is really the hallmark of a successful judge.”

Bush also told the new commissioners not to automatically discount candidates who have had imperfections in their lives.

“We are all imperfect under God’s watchful eye and that is the common denominator for all of us,” Bush said. “So you are not going to find a perfect judge, but you will find people who have made errors, made mistakes, and the interesting thing to probe, perhaps, is what they did about it.”

Bush said when those before the JNC have made mistakes, look to see how they handled it — did they accept responsibility for their actions and make changes in their lives in order to deal with the issue?

“The best test and best measurement of the goodness of people and their character is really to measure them when they do make mistakes,” Bush said. “When they show their imperfections rather than when they are aspiring to perfection.”

Bush said judicial philosophy also is important.

“People tell me all the time that the judiciary’s independence is being threatened,” Bush said. “To me, I think the greatest threat to the independence of the judiciary is when judges overstep their bounds. That creates the greatest danger, perhaps, than anything else. In order to protect the separation of powers, make sure judges apply the law rather than use their position to legislate.”

Coxe said commissioners must be able to look their friends and colleagues in the eye and tell them they did not make the cut.

“It is easy to sit in this room and say and it is much more difficult to do,” he said.

Coxe also noted the JNC process comes under media scrutiny now like never before.

“It is almost as if they look to see if they can catch somebody asking a question that should not be asked, making a decision that couldn’t be made, determining gender, ethnic, racial balance in the names recognized,” Coxe said. “It is under a microscope what everybody does during this process.”

For Floridians to believe in the third branch of government they must have confidence in the judicial selection process. Judicial applicants also must be treated fairly and must not be singled out by a particular question to the exclusion of other candidates, Coxe said.

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