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A Times Editorial

Merit retention for judges

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 28, 2000


In November, voters across the state will be deciding whether to move from our current system of electing county and circuit judges to a system known as merit retention, in which the governor appoints judges from a group of nominees and, in regular uncontested elections, the electorate decides whether the judges get to keep their jobs. We already employ this system for Florida's Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges, whose performance is put before the electorate after their initial appointment and then every six years.

This election cycle, three justices of the Florida Supreme Court and seven judges of the 2nd District Court of Appeal are up for merit retention. They are: Florida Supreme Court Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince; and 2nd District Court of Appeal Judges John Blue, Darryl Casanueva, Charles Davis Jr., Oliver Green, E.J. Salcines, Thomas Stringer and Edward Threadgill. The Times recommends the retention of all of them.

The criteria used to decide whether a judge should be retained are different from those applied when two candidates are vying for a judicial seat. In a contested election, the test is which candidate would make the better judge. Under merit retention, the standard is whether the incumbent jurist has performed the functions of the job in an ethical and competent manner. In developing our recommendation, we did not take into account an individual judge's judicial philosophy, whether liberal or conservative. Rather, the criteria are whether these judges and justices are well prepared in court, thoughtful questioners, knowledgeable about the law, responsive to the demands of the job, respectful of the attorneys who come before them and generally ethical: free from bias, prejudice or favoritism. Our research found no evidence that any of the sitting judges and justices up for merit retention have failed this test.

According to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the state body charged with policing misconduct in the judiciary, none of the jurists on the ballot has been the subject of formal charges of unethical conduct while in their current positions on the bench. And a statewide poll conducted by the Florida Bar indicates that practicing attorneys, by a wide margin, strongly support retention for all.

In interviews with a a cross-section of attorneys who routinely practice before these jurists, there was general agreement that everyone was doing a competent and professional job and deserved to be retained. We agree.

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