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Floridians keep right to elect judges


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000

Floridians voted overwhelmingly to continue electing the state's more than 750 trial judges, soundly defeating a movement by the state's legal community to have the governor appoint them.

In judicial circuits and counties across the state, voters favored retaining their right to select the judges who run some of Florida's busiest courts and have the most contact with ordinary citizens.

The Tampa Bay area followed that trend. Voters in the counties of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus will keep electing county and circuit judges every six years.

"People like to elect their public officials," Hillsborough Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez said Tuesday night. "It's the American way."

The choice to appoint or elect judges was before voters because of a constitutional amendment Floridians approved in 1998.

If the change had been approved, the governor would fill openings on the bench based on recommendations from local nominating commissions, and voters would have decided whether to retain sitting judges -- much as they do for appellate and Supreme Court judges.

But those who wanted to hold onto the current system said they didn't want voters to lose more rights by switching to the "merit selection system," which would have given more power to a small group of politically connected people.

"The system works," said Oscar Marrero, president of the Cuban-American Bar Association. "This is a victory for the entire community and for the administration of justice."

Although the appointment process is credited with making the judiciary more diverse, several groups representing minority attorneys wanted to retain elections.

The National Bar Association, the Hispanic Bar Association, the Cuban-American Bar Association and the Florida Association for Women Lawyers supported the current system -- much to the dismay of the Florida Bar, which counts every lawyer as a member.

Tuesday's election was a blow to legal heavyweights such as the American Bar Association and the Florida Bar, which spent about $70,000 lobbying for the change around the state.

"We're very disappointed," said Terry Russell, president-elect of the Florida Bar. "I think we're stuck with a lousy way of picking judges. It's too bad."

Those who supported appointments say judicial elections are flawed and ineffective. Besides, contested judicial races are extremely rare, and if no one runs against a judge, his or her name never appears on the ballot.

In lobbying for the change, the Bar said candidates are in races where judicial ethics prevent them from talking about issues, which leaves voters to choose a winner on name recognition alone and, perhaps, on promises they might not be able to fulfill. Candidates also are put in the position of accepting campaign donations from lawyers and special interest groups that might appear before them.

Russell blamed the defeat on confusing ballot language, saying voters may have voted against the change because they didn't understand the questions. "We did the best we could," he said.

Under the current system, the governor makes appointments only if vacancies occur between elections because of illnesses, resignations or retirements.

That happens so frequently that more than half the state's 753 trial judges owe their seats to governors.

"Really what we have now is the best of both worlds," Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer said. "I don't fault the voters for keeping it."

Results for judicial selection elections

A "yes" vote favors changing to a system of appointment and merit retention. A "no" vote indicates a preference for the current system of election and merit retention. Results are as of 11:00 p.m.

(Appointment of circuit judges, YES/NO

Fifth Judicial Circuit (Hernando and Citrus counties) -- 80,817(33.50%) /160,298(66.50%)

Sixth Judicial Circuit (Pinellas and Pasco counties) -123,596 (38.30%)/ 199,402 (61.70%) Thirteenth Judicial Circuit (Hillsborough County) -- 32,169 (30.60%)/ 72,837 (69.40%)

* * *

(Appointment of county judges, YES/NO

Citrus County -15,900 (29.30%) /38,278 (70.70%)

Hernando County -19,199 (31.90%) /41,075 (68.10%)

Hillsborough County -28,861 (28.00%) /74,360 (72.00%)

Pasco County -44,279 (34.40%) /84,274 (65.60%)

Pinellas County -67,379 (34.60%) / 127,342 (65.40%)

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