Friday, February 23, 2018
Editorials

Times recommends: Yes on merit retention for Justices Canady, Labarga and Polston

Three justices on the Florida Supreme Court face a merit retention vote in November, essentially an up-or-down vote of confidence allowing them to remain on the bench. Merit retention votes occur one year after the justices' initial appointment by the governor and then every six years. Voters have never removed a jurist through this process, but it is a valuable backstop to ensure integrity in the courts.

The three justices up for merit retention are Charles Canady, Jorge Labarga and Ricky Polston. All were appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Canady, 62, is a native of Lakeland who served four terms in the U.S. House as a Republican, from 1993 to 2001. He then became general counsel to Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed him to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in 2002. Crist elevated him to the Supreme Court in 2008.

Labarga, 63, was born in Cuba. He immigrated to Florida with his family as an 11-year-old. He worked as both a public defender and prosecutor in South Florida before moving on to private practice. Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the circuit bench in 1996. Crist made him an appellate judge for the 4th DCA in 2008 and appointed him to the Supreme Court a year later. He currently serves as the state's chief justice.

Polston, 60, was an accountant before going to law school. Bush appointed him to the 1st DCA in Tallahassee in 2001 and he joined the Supreme Court in 2008.

Most voters can't know whether a high court justice has served with professionalism and deserves retention. The Florida Bar conducts a biennial poll of attorneys who are familiar with the court's work. This year, 5,967 lawyers participated, evaluating the justices on factors including quality and clarity of judicial opinions, knowledge of the law, integrity and impartiality. All three justices on the ballot this year were recommended for retention by the state's lawyers by a margin of 84 percent or more.

Another way the judiciary is policed in Florida is through the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by judges and recommends disciplinary action. A check of the JQC database, which dates back to 2000, found that none of the justices up for retention has faced formal charges.

The justices are not running against each other, and they are not on the ballot because they did anything wrong. Merit retention allows voters to consider whether the justices should remain on the court and are ethical, impartial and qualified. The Times editorial board has disagreed with some positions in particular cases taken by Canady and Polston, the most conservative justices on the court. But merit retention is not about voicing disagreement with some of the court's opinions.

On the merit retention questions for Florida Supreme Court Justices Charles Canady, Jorge Labarga and Ricky Polston, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting yes.

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