Get ready to vote for the judges

Vote by mail ballots have arrived, and my inbox is full of emails asking what to do about the judges. (They’re asking about other ballot questions as well, and at the end of this post, I’ll tell you what I plan to write about, and when.)

Of the 29 items on my ballot, 13 are related to judges. But it’s not as bad as it seems: all are merit-retention votes. In this post, I’ll explain what this means, and which votes are on our ballot.

What is a merit-retention vote?

Florida Supreme Court justices and District Courts of Appeal judges are appointed by the governor. But as explained by the Florida Bar:

“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, in 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.”

Which merit-retention votes are on our ballot?

All Florida voters have the opportunity to vote for or against the retention of three Supreme Court justices this year. In addition, Collier County voters will vote on the retention of ten judges of the 14-county Second District Court of Appeal.

The lawyers who present their clients’ cases to the justices and judges on a daily basis are probably in the best position to know if they should be retained. So Florida voters are fortunate that every two years, the Florida Bar Association asks its in-state members to rate those up for retention of whom they have direct knowledge.

The names of those on our ballot, the percent of Florida Bar poll votes in support of their retention, and the governor who appointed them to the current position are:

Supreme Court justices

  • Charles T. Canady (84 percent) – appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008
  • Jorge Labarga (91 percent) – appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008
  • Ricky L. Polston (84 percent) – appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008

Second District Appeal Court judges

  • John Badalamenti (87 percent) – appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2015
  • Marva L. Crenshaw (87 percent) – appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009
  • Patricia J. Kelly (86 percent) – appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001
  • Nelly N. Khouzam (91 percent) – appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008
  • Matt Lucas (89 percent) – appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2014
  • Robert Morris (91 percent) – appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009
  • Stevan Travis Northcutt (92 percent) – appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1997
  • Samuel Salario, Jr. (88 percent) –  appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2014
  • Craig C. Villanti (90 percent) – appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003
  • Douglas Alan Wallace (88 percent) – appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003

Bios of these judges and justices are on the Florida Bar website here.

In addition to reviewing the Bar poll results, I Googled “Florida Merit Retention” for recent news about our ballot choices.

From an article in the Palm Beach Post, I learned that “No judge has ever been denied another six-year term since the system was implemented in 1976 after three elected justices were investigated, and two resigned, when an investigation found they allowed political cronies to influence their decision. Occasionally – most recently in 2012 when tea party activists targeted three high court justices – opposition has surfaced. None has emerged this year.”

From an Orlando Sentinel editorial, I learned that “All three [of the Supreme Court justices on the ballot] were appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, but Labarga normally votes with the court’s liberal majority, while Canady and Polston make up its conservative minority.”

I also learned, from a blog post in the Orlando Weekly, that Governor Scott has been “quietly at work shifting Florida’s courts rightward, leaving a judicial legacy that will far outlast his tenure.” In that regard, I noted that three of the judges on the ballot are Scott appointees: BadalamentiLucas and Salario

Referring to the Florida Bar poll, The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board wrote:

“Such high ratings from lawyers who best know the work of the justices and judges, and the absence of controversy surrounding any of them, should be more than enough to persuade voters to retain them.

Critics of the retention process often point out that no justice or appellate judge has ever been rejected by voters. But that says more about the high caliber of justices and appellate judges in Florida, and the process for nominating them, than any defects in the system for evaluating them.”

For more information about Florida’s judicial merit retention process, including a Guide for Florida Voters: Q and A about Judges, Judicial Elections and Merit Retention, related YouTube videos, and more, I recommend The Vote’s In Your Court.

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