TALLAHASSEE – In the upcoming November elections, Florida voters will get to choose whether or not to retain three state Supreme Court justices and 28 appeal court judges in five districts.
Scott Hawkins, a shareholder with Jones, Foster, Johnston and Stubbs and past president of the Florida Bar has studied and written extensively about the history and value of merit retention, which is what people say should be used when selecting which judges to retain.
“The vetting process for a judge or justice is extreme,” Hawkins told the Florida Record. “The merit they had in the beginning holds true through their time sitting on the court.”
The current system of merit retention for judicial positions took effect in 1976. According to Hawkins, the system was put in place in a time when there was a lot of instability in the judicial system. With the old system, candidates for judicial positions were able to campaign. Unlike representative positions where the people in office are working for their constituents, judges and justices can’t make promises on which way they’ll vote and can’t talk about their past decisions on the court. This old system was thought to have politicized the judicial branch.
With the current system, judges and justices are nominated by a nonpartisan judicial nominating commission and appointed by the governor. Once the judge or justice has served for one year, voters are able to vote whether to retain the judge or justice based on their performance in their first year. After the first year, the question of retention is asked of them every six years.
Hawkins, a fan of merit retention, does see problems for the electorate because of a lack of information voters have about the judges and justices up for retention.
“It’s a challenge for the electorate because there isn’t a lot of information on the decisions the judges and justices have made,” Hawkins said.
In order to make sure voters are informed about the judges and justices who are up for retention, the Florida Bar has created a page on their website called “The Votes in Your Court."
Hawkins also believes occasionally that voters take the judge’s or justice’s ruling personally rather than looking at whether they upheld the law and made an informed decision.
“I’m troubled when people take the view, ‘I don’t think they should stay because they voted such and such way on such and such case,’” Hawkins said. “How judges and justices rule on the court is extremely complicated.”
Unless a glaring character flaw shows itself once they are seated on the court, voters can assume the judge and justice still holds the same merit they had when being nominated.
Florida lawyers also seem to be in agreement about retaining all of the judges and justices up for retention. The Florida Bar sent a survey to their members and nearly 6,000 lawyers responded. Although not every lawyer gave an answer for each judge or justice, all the judges and justices got positive responses. Every single available candidate received a 79 percent or higher yes for retention vote, Hawkins said.
“We have a well-qualified court for the state,” Hawkins said.