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In an election year with a momentous presidential race, it may surprise voters to learn that one of the most important and historic decisions for Floridians is actually toward the very end of their ballot. Three of Florida’s Supreme Court Justices and a number of appellate judges are on the ballot for a regularly slated merit retention vote.

“Merit” in judicial politics is nothing new to Florida. The selection and retention of judges based on their merit was made a part of the Florida Constitution in 1976 to stop the old elective system that too often featured the undue influence of politics and corruption. Florida joined other progressive states by implementing the merit retention system to keep politics and money out of the courts, and to choose and keep judges based upon their fairness, education, and training. Supreme Court justices and appellate judges are initially appointed by the Governor. Every six years the judges are up for a merit retention vote. These merit retention votes are based on merit and qualifications, not partisan campaigns.

But this year’s merit retention vote is shaping up to be partisan, political, and contentious. Several political action committees have been formed with the sole purpose of ousting all three Florida Supreme Court justices on the ballot this year. For the first time in Florida history, one of the major political parties, the Republican Party of Florida, has come out publicly against the retention of these three.

With this swirl of politics and money around the merit retention vote, it’s a good idea for voters to know and focus on the facts about merit retention. Voters should ask themselves two simple questions.

First, have these judges been doing a good job? The best way to tell if someone is doing a good job is to talk to the people they work with. The Florida Bar is an organization comprised of all of Florida’s lawyers, and they conduct a regular poll of the lawyers who appear before these judges. Lawyers from all sides–conservatives, liberals, plaintiffs, defendants, prosecutors and defense lawyers–found by an overwhelming majority of 85 percent to 90 percent that the justices on the Supreme Court and the appellate judges on the District Courts of Appeal are qualified, fair, follow the law, and should be retained. Voters can check out these polls at the Florida Bar website.

The second question someone should ask when deciding whether somebody should keep their job is whether they have the right background, training and qualifications. Each of these judges was first found to be qualified by a non-partisan nominating panel of lawyers and citizens, and then evaluated and appointed by the governor. Voters can study the background of these judges and decide for themselves as to whether they are qualified at Florida Bar website “The Votes In Your Court”. 

Unfortunately, past campaigns to unseat judges have not been about the kind of job those judges are doing, or their qualifications. Now, political action committees have run ads attacking judges for some isolated decision that was often misinterpreted, or worse, inaccurately described. Florida voters should be cautious about PACS that use politics and money to try to shape the judiciary for some special interest political purpose.

The fact that one of Florida’s major political parties has weighed in against retaining the justices on the ballot should also signal caution to voters. Decisions that judges make are not political policy decisions. They are not Republican or Democratic decisions. Judges decide cases solely on the law, the Constitution, and the facts. That’s why judicial races in Florida are non-partisan. Candidates in elections for trial court positions cannot identify themselves as Republican or Democrats, and political parties shouldn’t play a role in supporting or attempting to defeat any judicial candidate. Merit retention decisions should be based on whether these judges are doing their job, and their qualifications for that job, not partisan politics.

The Florida Constitution provides a model system designed to keep politics and money out of deciding who our judges and justices are. Read up on these judges. Check out their background. See if they have been doing their job, and if they are qualified for it. Then vote all the way to the end of the ballot. If Florida voters do that, Florida and our Constitution will come out of this historic test stronger and better than ever.

© Article appeared in the Naples News on October 28, 2012