Two incidents in the past week are stark reminders that Florida's judicial selection process needs reform. First, a list of nominees for a Central Florida appellate seat lacked minorities. Then, a finalist for the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court bench included an attorney with no jury trial experience but plenty of political connections. In both cases, Gov. Charlie Crist did the right thing. Now he needs to go after the systemic problem and push for an overhaul of the judicial nominating process.
To Crist's credit, he recently rejected the all-white list of nominees for the 5th District Court of Appeal. On Friday, he bypassed the easier political choice and named to a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judgeship John "Jack" Helinger, one of the area's most experienced trial attorneys. But those smart decisions don't make up for a fundamental flaw in Florida's judicial system: Partisan appointees — rather than a more balanced panel of attorneys — now pick the governor's finalists for judicial appointments.
It doesn't have to be this way. For roughly 30 years until 2001, Florida had a more politically neutral way of vetting judicial applicants. The state followed a procedure implemented in the wake of scandal on the Florida Supreme Court, whose justices were then picked by popular election. Under the reform, a nine-member judicial nominating commission was established for each court. The governor and the Florida Bar each picked three members, and those six appointees chose the last three. The commissions' task was to review and interview applicants for vacancies on their bench, and then forward a list of finalists to the governor, who would make the selection. The model served the state well, ensuring moderate and usually merit-based appointments.
But that was before Gov. Jeb Bush suffered court defeats over controversial initiatives involving the death penalty and school vouchers. Bush sought to wrest control of the branch in a number of ways, but he was most successful in taking over the judicial nominating commissions. The 2001 Republican-led Legislature gave the governor authority to fill all 234 seats on the state's 26 JNCs — though the governor must fill almost half the seats with attorneys nominated by the Florida Bar.
The impact of the change is now clear. Too often now, the nominating commissions are putting more emphasis on the correct political persuasion and ideology, and less on the best qualifications. In August, Crist grumbled that the eight finalists for the first of two Supreme Court seats included no women or African-Americans, though he didn't reject the list and ended up appointing two conservative white men. But Crist wisely rejected a similar list recently for an opening on the 5th District Court of Appeal. The court covering 13 Central Florida counties has 10 seats, but only one female judge and no African-Americans. Oddly, the JNC has rejected the governor's request for a new list and forced a showdown.
But Crist needs to go beyond rejecting unacceptable nomination lists or politically charged nominees. Here is another chance for him to enhance his nonpartisan efforts. Just like Crist looked past partisan interests to restore civil rights for felons and to extend early voting in the November election, he should push to restore integrity and balance to the state's judicial nominating commissions.