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Florida Bar seeks to publicize "merit retention" election for judges

When Florida voters go to the polls this November to pick a president, they’ll also be asked to decide on races that will get much less fanfare: whether to retain three Florida Supreme Court justices and 15 appellate court justices in various regions of the state.

Many voters will skip the judges elections – in which they are asked to vote "yes’’ or “no” to let them stay in the job another six years, election data shows. Many more will simply guess, willing to make an uninformed choice.

The Florida Bar, the statewide professional organization for lawyers, wants to change that.

Armed with data that shows that 9 out of 10 Florida voters are unaware of what it means to have a “merit retention” election for Florida judges, the Bar on Monday launched a statewide education campaign to spread the word about the process that allows the state’s appellate level judges to stay in office.

The program, called “The Vote’s in Your Court’’will work to educate Floridians so they can make a better informed decision about the merit retention races on the ballot.

“Democracy works best when there’s good information,’’ said Scott Hawkins, president of the Florida Bar and a West Palm Beach lawyer. “This effort is not about supporting any particular court or any particular judge…we are endorsing a system which has operated uniformly for nearly 40 years.”

 Since 1976, Florida’s Constitution has required that Supreme Court justices and district court of appeal judges appear on the first statewide ballot following their appointment and then again every six years. This year, Justices Barbara ParienteFred Lewis and Peggy Quince will be up for a merit retention vote along with appellate court judges around the state.

Two years ago, a last minute group formed to oust Justices Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry. The right-leaning organization, Restore Justice


, which is linked to the Tea Party movement, targeted the justices after they voted with the 5-2 majority in a ruling that rejected a legislatively-backed constitutional amendment to allow the state to opt-out of federal health care reform because it failed to meet the state’s ballot requirements.


This year, the organization has started up again and is prepared to campaign against the remaining three justices in the opinion, each of which has twice before won merit retention approval.

But the justices have their hands tied. The ethics laws governing judges in Florida prohibit them from discussing their policy views, unlike candidates running for elected office, but those who launch an opposition campaign to defeat a judge can say whatever they want.

 “They can’t explain how they have ruled in the past or how they may rule in the future,’’ Hawkins said. “The restrictions on what candidates for judicial office can say are severe and strict.”

But because of this system, the bar “believes the importance of impartial, balanced and accurate information is critical,’’ he said.

The goal of the merit retention election is to give voters an opportunity to assess the body of work done by the justices and determine if they continue to remain qualified for the job. It is not to police bad judges, Hawkins said. That job goes to the Judical Qualifications Commission, which reviews, removes and sanctions judges for bad behavior, of the impeachment process which allows the state Senate to remove a bad judge.

While no judges have ever been removed under merit retention in the 34 years the program has been in place, many judges have been moved from office, Hawkins said.

Former Gov. Reubin Askew, who as governor willingly gave up his power to select the judges and justices in exchange for the merit retention system, said “it’s the best system that’s been devised for fairness.”

Askew said that when he came to office, justices were elected in partisan elections, collected campaign contributions and “money kept coming in.”

“It was an absolute mess,’’ he said. He endorsed the ballot amendment to allow judges to be retained by voters “to help keep politics out of the courtroom and go a long way to developing fair and impartial court decisions.’’

Now, Askew acknowledges, “there’s no perfect system,’’ and supports the right for groups to organize in opposition. But the system is better than appointing judges for life or requiring appellate judges to campaign in partisan elections.

“The most important thing to remember,'' he said, "is if you don’t have merit retention -- which has worked well under seven governors and for both parties in Florida -- where do you go from there?”

- Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

- Mary Ellen Klas