We'll Soon See How Meritorious Merit Retention Is
Around the State
Florida voters were sold a bill of goods in 1976 when they voted to quit electing judges at the appellate level -- including the Florida Supreme Court -- and move to what is called "merit retention."
It has little to do with merit and everything to do with liberal control of the judicial branch, which among other things gave us the embarrassing performance by the Florida Supreme Court following the election of George W. Bush in 2000.
Liberals argued that it was unseemly for lawyers to raise money to run for election and unfair to voters because bar rules prevent lawyers from discussing their opponents or their beliefs. (Obvious remedy: change the rules.)
Liberal trial lawyers dominate The Florida Bar and the bar plays a big role in selecting appellate judges. A commission of bar members meets secretly and nominates lawyers to the governor, who appoints from the list. Justices face a retention vote subsequently.
As a result of having a string of liberal governors, and one chameleon, five of the seven justices are liberals and liberal decisions emanate from the court. Justices also can prevent Floridians from voting on issues their eminences deem unworthy. They kept three issues off the ballot in 2010.
The practical effect of merit retention has been to distance justices from voter control.
Only two serious efforts have been made to unseat a justice, in 1990 and 1992. Both failed to garner more than 40 percent of the vote.
But in November, three justices on the Supreme Court -- Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince -- face the voters and this time conservatives are gearing up for a major challenge.
Liberals have mounted a campaign to quash the effort, compiling more than a half-million in cash.
Justices are supposed to be “nonpolitical” but Pariente recently made a speech in which she said of the upcoming vote, “A vote no will give Gov. Rick Scott the right to make his appointments, which will result in partisan political appointments.” Slamming the head of the executive branch is nonpolitical only by liberal logic.
Analysts say Florida has a higher rate of judicial activism – making law from the bench – than almost any other state.
Voters also are catching on. In 2000, the bar tried to make it worse by taking away the right to vote for trial judges but the public demurred.
Those seeking to oust the justices presumably will compile evidence of poorly reasoned decisions. If the evidence is solid and the justices still are not removed, it would be a pretty good signal that merit retention is a farce. Even if removed, it is likely the current system will replace them with liberal activists.
The Florida Legislature should reform the system. It might establish performance evaluation commissions, for example, so voters would know more about a judge’s record. If necessary, it should propose a constitutional amendment to revert to normal elections for all judges, a system that served us well for nearly a century before merit retention.
Lloyd Brown was in the newspaper business nearly 50 years, beginning as a copy boy and retiring as editorial page editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. After retirement he served as speech writer for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.