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Dearing

A look at merit retention (part II)

by The JBA Board of Governors member Katie Dearing

Now, I know nothing piques your interest like an(other) article about merit retention. It’s an inherently sexy topic that constantly has the Twittersphere buzzing. So, after Braxton Gillam’s expert historical exposition on Florida’s merit selection process in July’s “A look at merit retention (part I),” I knew you were waiting to hear the rest of the story.

As Braxton explained, appellate judges in Florida are initially appointed and then appear on the ballot every six years thereafter for voters to determine if they merit continued service on the bench.

What part one didn’t have room to cover is why this year’s focus on merit retention elections is so important: it reminds us all of the importance of exercising our vote on every issue and candidate on the ballot, not just the squeakiest wheels. Few citizens know better than Floridians just how many political ads can be squeezed into a commercial break, how many mailers a mailbox will hold before collapsing under its own weight or just how many robo-call messages is too many before your answering machine actually explodes. Inundated with all these political ads, especially in this presidential election year, by the time November comes we are just glad to do our duty, check the box for our guy (I’d like to say “or girl” here but it seems that’s not in the cards this year for most races on the ballot) so we can talk about something other than the election.

The danger here is that in our haste to end the election cycle, most people don’t vote for most issues on the ballot. Add to that apathy, the fact that most non-lawyers just don’t know anything about whether someone is a good judge or not and far fewer merit retention votes are cast compared to the hot items on the ballot. This year, it’s easy to vote on merit retention for the judges – they are on the first page of the ballot. But we need to remind everyone to actually vote on this issue.

The Supreme Court justices up for merit retention election this year are Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince. Because appellate judges don’t “campaign,” the average voter has no idea who these justices are. They don’t (and can’t) speak about their records in individual cases or opinions; so the lawyers have to. There aren’t any candidate profiles about these justices available to voters. Instead, voters will have to learn about the judges on their own – mostly by asking lawyers. In September, a Florida Bar survey gave the three justices an average approval rating of more than 90 percent. During the last retention vote in 2006, all three garnered at least 67 percent of the vote. This information, along with any specifics known to you or your firm, should be shared with your friends and neighbors in an effort to get them to at least stand up and be heard on this most important issue.

Whether you think the three justices up for retention this year deserve to be retained or not, please exercise your vote and encourage others to do so as well. In the (unlikely) event your friends want to discuss something other than merit retention at the tailgate, simply refer them to The Florida Bar’s “The Vote’s In Your Court” materials (available online).

If Floridians can be compelled to go to the polls over pregnant pigs, gambling and other such issues, surely we can be persuaded to take an extra minute and vote on the retention of our judiciary. An independent judiciary is what makes this country different; it’s why our form of democracy is the greatest in the world. In recognition of the advanced citizenship that is America, surely we are all willing to exercise the most sacred privilege of that citizenship.

I don’t know if there will be a third installment in this series (I know you’re all rooting for one), but I do know that Election Day is Nov. 6. Use it well.

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