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Florida should set bar higher for circuit judgeships

A couple of decades ago, the people who make the rules around here decided that 18 was too tender an age to allow a citizen to belly up to the bar for a Bud.

No doubt they harrumphed about things like "maturity," "responsibility" and "life experience," and 21 became the magic number and the law of the land, or Florida, at least.

This decision was not, in my opinion, discriminatory. This was not the equivalent of saying only right-handed white guys, not women, nor minorities, nor left-handers, would be permitted to purchase a nice pinot noir.

That's because the age of 21 is generally attainable to all of us, given patience and clean living and cooperation of the fates.

Which brings us to the subject of how we get our judges, if you'll forgive the pairing of booze and the black-robed for illustrative purposes.

To me, the perfect candidate to ascend to the bench would be a lawyer who has done time in both trenches, as prosecutor and public defender, good-guy avenger and perpetual underdog. (We need more judges who know what "underdog" feels like.)

My candidate would then have gone into private practice to hone skills in civil or family or some other useful law, gaining perspective and experience over at least a decade, hopefully more.

But to become a circuit judge in Florida, you need only to have been a member of the Florida Bar for five years.

Five years! A mere five years of Florida experience to win the job of deciding whether someone goes to jail or walks free or — in some cases — dies. The job of ruling on weighty matters of money, the job of determining divorces or the fate of children. Five years.

In Hillsborough County, current circuit judge hopefuls Jason D. Montes and Miriam Velez have each been members of the Florida Bar for six years, and candidate Linda Courtney Clark for seven.

Two of the lawyers hoping to get elected to the Pinellas-Pasco bench, Kenneth Foote and Susan L. Gardner, have been members for eight and nine years, respectively.

Hillsborough voters elected Ashley Moody, then 31, to be the youngest judge in Florida in 2006.

No disrespect whatsoever is intended toward any of them. To a person, all might make fine, long-standing judges.

Just imagine how much finer with a few more years of lawyering under their belts.

Certainly, there is a difference between a younger candidate five years out of law school and one who came to the law after another career or two. (The current crop includes ex-probation officer Velez, former funeral home owner Foote and onetime mortgage broker Montes.)

And certainly, we voters should consider each on his or her merits — though our attention tends to wane in these races in which the candidates can be as faceless as yard signs.

And certainly, we would hope no one would run for judge just because hanging out a shingle can be a tough go and, hey, the gig comes with a steady paycheck, benefits and a really nice parking space. We would hope.

So here's my suggestion: You don't get to be a judge in our state until you've been a lawyer for 10 years here, a requirement our appeals courts already have.

Perspective changes as you see more of what a courtroom can dish up. And 10 years' experience is attainable by all, those aforementioned fates willing.

Florida should set bar higher for circuit judgeships 05/27/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 28, 2008 7:23pm]

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