Voting for Judges: Where to Begin?

Soon after I published my endorsements for the School Board elections, I began to receive requests for advice about which judges to vote for. (I also received lots of emails of appreciation for the School Board analysis, which was wonderful.)
As one who is passionate about being an informed voter, it is great to know so many people are seeking information. But it’s also disconcerting. Why are we at such a loss when it comes to the judicial candidates? Why isn’t the news media helping us with these decisions? These questions may be the subject of another post, but for now, let’s understand what we are being asked to vote for.
Courtesy of

Article V of the Florida Constitution establishes a four-tiered judicial system. The top two tiers are appellate courts that review the decisions of the courts below them. The third and fourth tiers are the trial courts.

Appellate courts
Appellate courts review and affirm, reverse, modify or send back with further instructions the judgments or decisions of a lower court. The Florida Supreme Court (Tier 1) and five District Courts of Appeal (Tier 2) are Florida’s appellate courts.
Collier County is part of the Second Appellate District.
Appellate court judges are appointed by the governor. They serve six-year terms, and stand for “merit retention” election at the end of each term. Voters vote “yes” or “no,” to retain the judge or not, but do not have the opportunity to choose between alternatives. If the majority of voters votes “no,” the judge is replaced by another gubernatorial appointee.
Trial courts
Circuit Courts (Tier 3) handle most criminal and civil cases. Cases are usually heard before a jury. Circuit Courts also hear appeals from county court cases. There are 20 Circuit Courts in Florida.
Collier County is one of five counties in the 20th Circuit. All voters in a circuit can cast votes for each race regardless of where the judge is based.
County Courts (Tier 4)(aka “the people’s courts”) handle citizen disputes such as traffic offenses, less serious criminal matters (misdemeanors), and relatively small monetary disputes.  Each of Florida’s 67 counties has its own County Court. Cases are usually not heard before a jury.
Circuit and County Court judges stand for election in nonpartisan races every six years.
Decisions for Collier voters: District Court of Appeals
In November, we will have the opportunity to vote for or against three incumbent judges in merit retention elections. They are Chris W. Altenbernd, Morris Silberman and Daniel H. Sleet. I’ll plan to look into their backgrounds at a later date.
Decisions for Collier Voters: 20th Circuit Court of Appeal
We have the opportunity to vote for one of two candidates in two separate races in the August primary:
  • Circuit Judge, Group 3: Robert Branning or Mary Evans
  • Circuit Judge, Group 16: Amy Hawthorn (incumbent) or Steven S. Leskovich

Decisions for Collier Voters: County Judge
We have the opportunity to vote for one of two candidates:
  • Sal Bazaz or Rob Crown

In the coming days, I will research each of these candidates online, and share what I learn.
Thanks again for your interest! If you have any questions, comments, corrections or suggestions, please let me know.

Note: Image updated 02/25/19.

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