When Florida voters head to the polls in November, among other choices they’ll be voting on the retention of three Florida Supreme Court Justices and 15 appeals court judges.
Most voters aren’t clear about the reasons for merit retention, according to The Florida Bar President Gwynne Young.
That’s a problem the Bar wants to correct, but it needs assistance from the legal community to spread the knowledge, she said.
“Merit retention, to me, is having fair and impartial judges who are free from politics and feel they can make hard decisions. It is critical for our democracy,” Young said.
The merit retention system was adopted in 1976 for Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges. They appear on the ballot following their first year of appointment by the governor and every six years thereafter.
Young said merit retention is a compromise between the federal system, in which judges are appointed for life, and elections.
Young said voters often are not informed about the judges, are “fatigued” by the end of the ballot or are confused by the language and think the judges are in trouble.
Research for The Bar’s “The Vote’s in Your Court” program showed that 90 percent of respondents did not know the meaning of the term “merit retention,” Young said.
“We have an education problem on our hand if 90 percent of people did not understand,” she said.
The Bar cannot back candidates, but it can advocate for positions that involve the administration of justice.
She said the education program is vital when special interest groups politicize the retention system.
“A judge’s job is not to do what people want” him or her to do, she said. “It’s to look at the facts, look at the law and apply the law to the facts.”
The Bar has distributed an explanatory voter’s guide to Supervisor of Elections offices and voting groups and also maintains a Bar website with information about the judges up for retention.
The Bar also is offering educational sessions to communities, which is where the legal community can help, Young said.
“Educate people within your sphere of influence, get the word out. We will make training available,” she said.
Attorneys can sign up for a brief training session — about 30 minutes online — and then be scheduled to speak to organizations when requested.
More information is available by calling the Bar’s public information office at (850) 561-5834.
Groups interested in a speaker can visit the Bar’s website, www.flabar.org.
“We just want people to get out and vote with an educated decision,” Young said.