The League of Women Voters of Florida supports a judicial system that provides a unified court structure, improved provisions for judicial selection and merit retention and equal access to legal services.
League study of the judicial system in 1967 resulted in support of a merit selection and retention plan for judges. Judges should not be chosen on the basis of political identification, ability to get votes or in return for campaign contributions. The 1976 Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment providing merit selection and retention of judges at the appellate level. The League conducted a major action campaign for the amendment, which passed in the November election. The League’s slogan was “Amendment 2 – You Be the Judge.” Circuit court judges and county court judges were not affected by this amendment.
In 1992, LWVF chose extending merit selection and retention to circuit and county judges as a legislative priority. The measure passed the Senate successfully but failure in the House killed the bill. Currently, judicial vacancies are filled by appointment of the Governor, as directed by the Florida Constitution. The Governor makes these appointments from a list of not fewer than three and not more than six persons nominated by a judicial nominating commission. Each judicial nominating commission is composed of nine members. Five of those members are appointed to the commission at the sole discretion of the Governor. The remaining four positions are also appointed by the Governor; however, the Governor must make his or her selection from a list of nominees recommended by the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar. The Board of Governors of The Florida Bar recommends three people for each of those positions on the commission, and the Governor must make his or her selection from that list or reject all three recommendations and request that a new list of three be provided. A bill was filed during the 2011 legislative session that would retain the current membership-selection process but would provide that the governor dismiss all current members of the twenty-six judicial nominating commissions. The bill did not pass in either house.
Early in the 2011 session, the House Speaker proposed legislation to split the state Supreme Court in two and expand the number of justices. Each court would have five members for a total of ten as opposed to the current seven member court. One branch would handle civil cases and the other would handle criminal cases. There were many critics of the bill who stated that the legislation would undermine the independence of the judiciary and that it was retribution for the Supreme Court striking down three amendments proposed by the 2010 legislature. The bill was altered as it passed through the House; the Supreme Court would remain as a single court but three justices would be added to the panel and there would be a civil and criminal division, each with five justices. The Bill was now a joint resolution and would appear on the 2012 ballot. As it moved to the Senate, the bill was not as well received. While it passed through two committees, it was defeated on the floor of the Senate. However, $400,000 was provided in the budget for a study of the Supreme Court; the governor later vetoed the expenditure.
Along with other amendments, the Legislature succeeded in adding Amendment 5 to this year’s November election. The proposed amendment would alter the balance of power among the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government. Its most meaningful provision is the one granting the state Senate confirmation power over appointees to the Florida Supreme Court. If passed, this amendment would allow the Senate to reject or approve nominees. It would also give members of the state House of Representatives expanded access to confidential files involving judges accused of misconduct, and would give lawmakers the right to repeal procedural court rules, such as speedy trial time limits or deadlines for filing court documents, with a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds majority vote, as currently required.
• Judges should be appointed on the basis of merit;
• There should be provisions in the constitution for the governor to appoint judges from a group of nominees selected by a panel or a commission composed of members of the Bar and lay people;
• If judges continue to be elected, their election should be nonpartisan;
• A law degree is a necessary legal requirement for holding judicial office;
• Judges should be retained in office by means of periodic review through an election in which a judge would run unopposed and solely on his or her record.
• Florida should have a formal method of evaluating judges for retention election.
SEND a letter-to-the-editor for publication to your local news outlet expressing your opposition to Amendment 5. If passed, the amendment would allow the state Senate to reject or approve judicial nominees. It would also give members of the state House of Representatives expanded access to confidential files involving judges accused of misconduct, and would give lawmakers the right to repeal procedural court rules, such as speedy trial time limits or deadlines for filing court documents, with a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds majority vote, as currently required. For help with your letter, contact the state office.
DONATE to the League of Women Voters of Florida Advocacy Fund to help us campaign against the assault on our Supreme Court.
Click HERE to watch the League of Women Voters of Florida’s forum on merit retention, “Who Will Be The Judge?,” which took place in Tallahassee, Florida on October 5, 2012.
The Florida Bar’s “The Vote’s in Your Court” campaign website.
Democracy at Stake’s “Stand for the Courts” campaign website.