Judicial Merit Retention: What to Know Before You Vote
As most Floridians learned in their middle school civics classes, the founders of our democracy believed a third branch of government, one insulated from the political fray, was necessary to serve as a check and balance on the legislative and executive branches. A strong democracy requires a fair and impartial judiciary, able to make decisions based solely on the law and constitution without fear of retaliation.
But in many states, Supreme Court justices are chosen in contested popular elections, a process that results in a highly politicized judiciary unable to fulfill the crucial function envisioned by the founders. That was true in Florida, too, until reforms in the 1970s changed the way our appellate and Supreme Court justices are selected and retained. Now, nonpartisan judicial nominating commissions ("JNCs") review applicants on the basis of merit, using "criteria including professional qualifications, character, integrity, intellect, experience, temperament, professional competence, maturity, capacity for growth and other characteristics." (Florida Bar Fact Sheet, www.floridabar.org/thevotesinyourcourt) The JNCs then submit names of the most qualified applicants to the governor, who must choose one from the list.
Every six years, these appointed judges appear on the ballot for a merit retention vote. As former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero explained, "the merit retention system was designed to allow voters to remove justices for misconduct, inside or outside of office." (Miami Herald, September 11, 2012 Former justice joins pushback in merit retention debate over FSC justices) "If we start turning the merit retention process into a political vehicle, then we are turning the judiciary into another political branch of government, which the Founding Fathers of our country specifically intended to avoid," Cantero said.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has also joined the discussion, appearing in a video produced by the Florida Bar to appeal to Florida voters to educate themselves on the purposes of merit retention and to cast informed votes. She said, "For more than three decades, Florida's merit retention system has helped buffer the state's appellate courts from improper influence that might affect their decisions" and noted that "judicial independence is very hard to create...and it's easier than most people imagine to damage or destroy."
Unfortunately, that's exactly what some groups are attempting to do in Florida this year. The effort is being led by "Restore Justice 2012," a conservative political action committee that is urging voters to reject the three supreme court justices on the basis of their rulings in a few opinions. They have embarked on a statewide campaign, focused especially on tea party voters, to convince voters to vote against retaining these judges. Removing them from office would allow Governor Rick Scott to appoint three new justices.
Florida's system was designed to protect judicial independence from exactly this sort of attack, preserving the ability of judges to make fair and impartial decisions without political interference. That's why state leaders and former justices from across the political spectrum have joined together to oppose these efforts. The list supporting the retention includes 23 former presidents of the Florida Bar, former justices appointed by both Republican and Democratic governors, and many others.
For the system to work properly, voters must be informed. Follow the links below for more information about the justices on the ballot and on the merit retention system itself. We'll add more sources as they become available. And remember, your ballot will be very long this year, and it's important to vote all the way to the end!
Check out this page for unbiased information on all the judges on the ballot, the history of the merit retention system, and much more.
The LWV is one of Florida's most respected organizations. Strictly non-partisan since its inception in 1939, the League has been providing voters unbiased information for decades. Click here to download their 2012 Voter Guide, which includes information on every item on the ballot, including merit retention.
Created by a non-partisan, non-profit organization, this website includes detailed bios of the justices and other useful information.
An excellent history of the corruption scandals that led to our current system of merit retention, and a warning about the hazards of allowing Rick Scott and the Republican Party to politicize the system and pack the court. More
"Gov. Rick Scott and a reenergized Republican majority stormed into office two years ago brandishing their conservative credentials. Almost immediately, Florida's Supreme Court became a target....Even more blatant is the partisan game being played in connection with this year's retention vote involving three sitting justices."