Florida maintains a two-tiered electoral system for judges. Competitive elections are reserved for trial court judges, while appellate judges and justices stand for merit retention. Merit retention votes are essentially up-or-down votes of confidence that occur a year after initial appointment by the governor and then every six years. And while no jurist has been removed by the voters through this process since its inception in the late 1970s, the system provides a useful safety valve.
For most voters, it is difficult to know whether a jurist has been professional and deserving of retention. The Florida Bar's biennial poll of attorneys is particularly helpful guidance. This year, 5,302 lawyers participated in the statewide balloting. Those with knowledge of the jurists were asked to evaluate them on eight attributes, including the quality and clarity of judicial opinions, knowledge of the law and impartiality, among others. By a margin of 85 percent or more, the Supreme Court justices and 2nd District Court of Appeal judges facing merit retention were recommended by the state's lawyers for retention.
Compare that to Chief Judge Paul Hawkes of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, known for his role in the palatial new courthouse, who got the lowest rating ever given. Fifty three percent of attorneys with "considerable knowledge" of Hawkes said he should not be retained. Tampa Bay area voters will not be voting on Hawkes' merit retention, but the score indicates that Florida attorneys are willing to judge the judges.
Another way the judiciary is policed in Florida is through the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by the state's judges and recommends disciplinary action. A check of the JQC database, which dates back to 2000, found that none of the jurists up for retention in the Tampa Bay region has had formal charges brought against them.
Here is the list of jurists who will appear on the area's general election ballot. After each name is the percentage of attorneys in the Florida Bar poll who support retention:
Florida Supreme Court: Charles Canady, 86 percent; Jorge Labarga, 88 percent; James Perry, 85 percent; Ricky Polston, 85 percent.
2nd District Court of Appeal: Marva Crenshaw, 86 percent; Patricia Kelly, 88 percent; Nelly Khouzam, 91 percent; Robert Morris, 92 percent; Stevan Northcutt, 93 percent; Craig Villanti, 90 percent; Douglas Wallace, 90 percent.
The Times recommends a "yes" vote to retain all.