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Learn About Florida’s Merit Retention Before You Vote

on Oct 29, 2012 - Firm News & Press Releases

Florida’s independent judiciary is under political assault.  There is an attempt to remove all sitting judges simply to allow the current governor to ‘stack the deck’ with his own political appointees.

Learn more at: http://www.floridabar.org/thevotesinyourcourt

Merit selection is a way of choosing judges through appointment, using a nonpartisan nine-member commission of lawyers and non-lawyers to locate, recruit, investigate and evaluate applicants for judicial office. These judicial nominating commissions (JNCs) then submit three to six names of the most highly qualified applicants to the governor, who must make a final selection from the list.

Florida’s appellate judges, after initial service of at least one year, are then considered for continuation in office “on merit” by citizen vote in uncontested elections. If kept in office by a majority of favorable merit retention votes, the judge is automatically re-evaluated in the same manner at the end of each six-year term thereafter.

Efforts to implement the merit selection/merit retention process within Florida’s various courts go back as far as the 1940s. As enthusiasm for the concept continued into the 1950s, a form of merit selection that utilized “judicial screening” programs was tested in the late 1960s. In 1971 an executive order by Gov. Reubin Askew became the basis for Florida’s current judicial nominating commission system of merit selection, made applicable to appointments and vacancies at all levels of the state judiciary by 1972 constitutional amendment.

The companion process of merit retention for appellate judges was added to the constitution in 1976, when Florida voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment requiring merit retention voting for all Supreme Court justices and District Court of Appeal judges. Those appellate judges now automatically face a retention vote after an initial term of at least one year and thereafter every six years — not against any opposing candidates — but by citizen approval of their performance in office through a simple “Yes” or “No” vote.

Proponents of merit selection/retention say that elective politics and campaigning for the bench invite conflicts of interest between judges and their financial supporters. Proponents also stress that incumbent trial judges often draw no opposition in the elective system, and therefore escape any regular citizen review whatsoever.

Critics of judicial elections claim that a popular vote allows important judicial positions to be won by those who are often less qualified than other aspirants produced through a merit-focused appointive process. Those on the other side argue that allowing appointed groups to select candidates for gubernatorial appointment divests the people of their vote in a democratic government.

In the 2000 general election, voters had the chance to extend the current system of merit selection and retention in place for appeals court judges and Supreme Court justices to trial judges in their local circuit and county courts but the measure was defeated everywhere in the state.

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