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Circuit Court, County Court Judge Referendums

A 1998 constitutional amendment confronts voters with a decision on whether to adopt a new method for picking judges.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


Voters will decide Tuesday how to chose the men and women responsible for selecting which parent gets custody of their children, whether a criminal should be executed and if someone's claim is strong enough to sue their neighbor.

All Floridians will vote on whether to continue to elect trial judges or switch to a system in which they are appointed by the governor based on a selection committee's recommendations.

The choice comes on the heels of a constitutional amendment Floridians approved in 1998.

The American Bar Association and the Florida Bar both strongly support the change to what has been dubbed merit selection and retention, mostly because they say the system will take the politics out of choosing judges.

Supporters argue it wouldn't put judges in the position of accepting campaign contributions from lawyers and special interest groups, which may compromise their objectivity.

"The election process is inappropriate," said Luke Bierman, director of the ABA's Justice Center. "You have politics in any human activity, but we are trying to minimize that."

Gerald Richman, a South Florida attorney who supports a change, said he hopes the merit system also would allow other qualified lawyers to serve as judges. "A lot of people who would make very good judges are not going to go through the rigors of a campaign," he said.

But backers of the current system say it lets voters determine who sits on the bench, and switching would give power to a small group of politically connected people.

"To suggest the public is not up to the task is a slap to the democratic process," said Kenneth Connor, a Tallahassee attorney. "I trust the people. The solution is not to strip people of their rights."

Joseph Little, a law professor at the University of Florida, felt so strongly about the issue that he and a fellow attorney have asked the Florida Supreme Court to order the Florida Bar to stop lobbying on the issue.

"I don't think moving in that direction is best for the state," Little said. "I think the system we have now is preferable."

Merit selection has been adopted in two-thirds of the states, Bierman said. Some, such as Rhode Island and New Jersey, appoint all judges. Others, such as Illinois and Texas, elect them all.

In Florida, trial judges face non-partisan elections every six years, but candidates are not allowed to discuss the issues. They can be appointed by the governor, however, to fill midterm vacancies.

Appellate judges already are appointed and must seek re-election on a yes-no basis without opponents. That will not change no matter what voters decide Tuesday.

But some supporters of merit selection fear recent events by the 1st District Court of Appeal's nominating commission in Tallahassee could jeopardize efforts to expand the system. A nominating commission member is being investigated for asking personal questions of an applicant and distributing selective documents from his divorce file.

The statewide Conference of Circuit Judges declined to take a position on the ballot questions. Both Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer and Hillsborough Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez said they are leaning toward supporting merit selection.

Schaeffer cited a recent study that showed that 83 percent of Florida judges who were removed or resigned under pressure were originally elected.

"In the final analysis (Pinellas) has never gotten a bad judge from merit selection but we have through elections," she said.

Voters in each county will decide whether to appoint or elect their county judges, and voters in each circuit -- some of which include several counties -- will decide the same. That means one county could decide to elect its judges while a neighboring county could decide to appoint them, which bothers Schaeffer and Alvarez.

"To me, that's odd," Alvarez said. "I hate to think of Pasco going one way and Pinellas another way.

ON THE BALLOT

Items on Tuesday's ballot will ask voters to vote "yes" or "no" to the following questions:

Shall the method of selecting circuit court judges in the ... circuit be changed from election by a vote of the people to selection by the judicial nominating commission and appointment by the governor with subsequent terms determined by a retention vote of the people?

Shall the method of selecting county court judges ... be changed from election by a vote of the people to selection by the judicial nominating commission and appointment by the governor with subsequent terms determined by a retention vote of the people?

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