Voters in Wisconsin recently endured a dirty and expensive —$5-million —campaign in which a dubiously qualified circuit court judge bankrolled by business lobbies narrowly defeated the only African-American justice.
Florida has more than three times the population and media markets. Think what a Florida Supreme Court seat would cost.
But that's one problem, at least, that Florida happily does without. Supreme Court justices and judges of the five district courts of appeal are appointed. When they go on the ballot, at six-year intervals, voters choose only whether to retain them. There are no opponents, and so there is no costly campaigning to compromise their ethics.
Voters approved that in 1976 after three elected justices resigned under various clouds of scandal.
The manner in which then-Gov. Reubin Askew chose their successors created public confidence in the subsequent changeover to an all-appointed appellate bench.
Askew had abdicated the governor's traditional power to appoint friends to judgeships. Instead, he established nominating commissions to recommend candidates. Significantly, he could not control the nominating commissions. Each consisted of three members chosen by the governor, three named by the Florida Bar, and three more chosen by the governor's and the Bar's appointees together.
When Askew appointed Ben Overton, Alan Sundberg and Joseph W. Hatchett — Florida's first black justice — to the first three Supreme Court vacancies, no one could say it was because he owed them favors. When Arthur J. England, an Askew protege, won one of the last contested elections, in 1974, the seven-member court was under the control of a reform-minded majority committed to ethics, scholarship and judicial restraint.
So Askew was speaking from experience when the present governor, Charlie Crist, asked for his advice and Askew told him that his judicial appointments would define his legacy.
"That's the most important thing you'll do," Askew said.
Crist agreed. Now Florida will see how much he took it to heart.
Justices Raoul G. Cantero III and Kenneth B. Bell, who were Jeb Bush appointees, have announced their resignations effective in September and October respectively. Justices Harry Lee Anstead and Charles T. Wells, who were appointed by Lawton Chiles, face mandatory retirement on turning 70 early next year.
With their replacements, it will be Charlie Crist's court. No governor ever named so many justices so early in his term.
Crist's appointees, however, may not enjoy the same presumption that Askew's did — that politics did not account for their selection.
The governor now appoints all nine members of each nominating commission, to staggered terms. The Bar recommends people for appointment to four of the nine slots, but that is not a majority. Bush, who considered the judiciary's authority less "legitimate" than that of the governor and executive, obtained that power from Republican legislators who shared his disapproval of the Florida Supreme Court's decisions in the 2000 presidential contest.
Crist has already replaced three of Bush's Supreme Court nominating commissioners. The terms of three more expire in June. This explains why Crist has yet to formally accept the Cantero and Bell resignations or notify the commission that it has those vacancies to fill. He is not expected to do so until after he names his next three commissioners in July.
That will make it "his" commission, not Bush's. If his next three appointments follow the pattern of last year, all will be well regarded by attorneys but at least two will also have strong political connections. A law partner of his former chief of staff got one of the seats; a Crist campaign contributor whose wife ran Bush's 2000 campaign was named to another.
Cantero's vacancy, the first to come up, will be open to lawyers throughout Florida. (Bell's may be limited to North Florida depending on who is chosen for Cantero's.) So it will be instructive, as a measure of confidence in the process, to see who applies. Should the applicants be few, or exclusively Republican, it would be an inauspicious introduction to Crist's most important legacy.
Martin Dyckman, a retired St. Petersburg Times associate editor, is author of "A Most Disorderly Court: Scandal and Reform in the Florida Judiciary."