Sunday, September 14, 2014

Our Merit Retention Decisions

Last week, in On to November, I reviewed the items that will be on my ballot for the November 4 election. In this post, I’ll consider the three District Court of Appeals merit retention questions on the ballot.
As I learned when I wrote Voting for Judges: Where to Begin?, in Florida, appellate court (i.e. Supreme Court and District Courts of Appeal) judges are appointed by the governor from lists submitted by Judicial Nominating Commissions, which screen candidates and make recommendations.
The Florida Bar explains how the system works after that this way:
Justices and appeals court judges face the voters in merit retention elections every six years – except after their first appointments. Newly appointed justices and appeals court judges serve an initial term of at least one year and are then subject to the first merit retention reviews of their performances in the next General Election.
Only those judges receiving approval from a majority of the voters in the General Election may continue in office for another six-year term. If voters choose not to retain a judge, a vacancy would be created and would be filled through the merit selection process through which the governor would appoint one from three to six nominees submitted by a judicial nominating commission. Terms are staggered so that not all of the appellate judges face the voters in the same election.
This year, 22 of Florida’s 61 appeals court judges who are either completing their first year or approaching the end of their terms will be on the ballot; no Supreme Court justices are on the ballot.
The Florida Bar has produced pamphlets for each district court with biographies provided by the judges who will be on the ballot. Included about each judge are birth year, birth place, family, degrees, legal offices and positions, bar offices and activities, other civic activities, honors and awards, and publications. Sure makes a voter’s life easier than if she had to do the research herself!
I reviewed the Florida Bar pamphlet for the Second District Court of Appeal (DCA), which includes Collier County. The three judges whose merit retention will be on Collier voters’ ballots are Chris Altenbernd, Morris Silberman and Daniel Sleet. All three judges’ bios’ are impressive. Highlights, based solely on what interested ME, are as follows: 
Judge Altenbernd
  • Born in 1949
  • Degrees: Master of Laws in Judicial Process, University of Virginia, 1998; J.D., Harvard Law School, 1975; B.A., with honors, Psychology, University of Missouri, 1972.
  • Judge, Second (DCA), 1989-present, appointed by Gov. Bob Martinez (R).
  • Member or chair of several committees addressing postconviction reform efforts.
Judge Silberman

  • Born in 1957
  • Degrees: J.D., University of Florida College of Law, 1982; B.A., Philosophy and Political Science, Tulane University, 1979.
  • Judge, Second DCA, 2001-present, appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

Judge Sleet
  • Born in 1961
  • Degrees: J.D., Cumberland School of Law, 1987; B.A., History, Furman University, 1984.
  • Judge, Second DCA, 2012-present, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott (R).
It seems to me that, absent some sort of public scandal, lawyers and members of the legal profession are in the best position to evaluate a judge’s suitability for retention. Fortunately, The Florida Bar makes it easy to get that input. They mailed a ballot to 70,467 Florida Bar members residing and practicing in Florida regarding each of the judges subject to merit retention vote in November, and published the results earlier this month (“Florida Bar Poll Shows Overwhelming Support for Appellate Judges in Merit Retention Elections”).
Over 5,200 lawyers participated, and “only responses by lawyers indicating considerable or limited knowledge of the judges were included in the poll results.”
In the press release, Florida Bar President Gregory W. Coleman attributed the “overwhelming support” to the fact that “Florida’s merit selection/retention process – in which judicial nominating commissions screen candidates and make recommendations to the governor who appoints the judges – does a top-notch job of finding attorneys who are extremely qualified to serve as appellate jurists.”
For the three Second DCA judges on Collier voters’ ballot, the poll results indicate support for retention of:
  • Chris W. Altenbernd by 95 percent.
  • Morris Silberman by 94 percent.
  • Daniel H. Sleet by 91 percent.
As a final “due diligence” step, I Googled each of the judges’ names. Googling Judge Silberman and Judge Sleet turned up nothing of note. With Judge Altenbernd, I was surprised to come across something that might be relevant to my decision: he wrote the minority dissenting opinion last month when the Second DCA asked the Florida Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of Florida’s same-sex marriage ban.
In order to figure out whether this was relevant to my decision (and mindful of my responsibility to my readers to do the digging on their behalf), I delved into the matter.
Stay with me – I’ll let you know what I learned and what I decided in my next post.

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