Florida's appellate judges are appointed but by law must face a straight yes-or-no vote every six years on whether they deserve to remain in office. They face no opponents, only their records; if one is rejected, the governor appoints another from among three nominees chosen by a screening committee. Up for review on Nov. 6 are one Florida Supreme Court justice and six judges of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which comprises Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and several other west-central Florida counties.
This system, called merit retention, spares voters the well-nigh impossible task of deciding who is competent to sit on the Supreme Court and five appeal courts, while still giving the public a strong voice in the process.
We hope that the same system will one day replace the current method of direct election of county and circuit judges. All judicial races are non-partisan, and judicial ethics severely limit what candidates may discuss. Although merit retention has its drawbacks, most voters will admit that it's far more logical than giving judicial power to people selected on the basis of campaign signs and name recognition.
The Times editorial board has interviewed the judicial candidates, examined their records and sought the opinions of their colleagues in the legal community, who are best positioned to rate their performance. Here are our recommendations:
Justice Shaw must be retained
Supreme Court Chief Justice Leander Shaw exceeds every rational requirement for retention in office, but now there's an even more compelling reason to vote for him.
The cynical effort of anti-abortion zealots to unseat Shaw, 60, has elevated what should be a routine referendum into a test of the merit retention system itself. There is widespread concern in the legal community that the politically based challenge to Shaw poses a dangerous threat to the integrity of the judiciary.
Shaw's record _ assistant public defender, assistant state attorney, four years on the 1st District Court of Appeal, and since 1983 on the Florida Supreme Court _ has earned him immense respect in legal and other circles throughout the state. He has been endorsed by everyone from teacher unions to former Supreme Court justices. In fact, Floridians have already voted twice in past elections to retain him.
The Clearwater Bar Association's remarks in endorsing Shaw were typical: "His personal and professional deportment have been such that public confidence and respect for the legal system (have) been greatly enhanced."
But Shaw's overall performance doesn't interest some abortion foes. Led by Florida Right To Life, they began an intensive campaign to oust Shaw after the court ruled last year that requiring a minor to obtain parental or judicial consent for an abortion violates the constitutional right of privacy.
If the Shaw-bashers prevail, it will be a step backward, toward appellate courts composed not of outstanding jurists but of calculating politicians whose ethics resemble those of the Legislature, who will decide appeals based on public reaction rather than the tenets of jurisprudence.
That's one of the abuses that merit retention was designed to prevent. But for the system to work, voters must be wise enough to realize that no appellate judge can perform courageously in office without offending someone's pet agenda. Voters must base their decisions on such factors as whether a judge has earned the respect of his peers by exhibiting consistency, impartiality, integrity, judicial temperament and knowledge of the law.
Abortion foes have presented no plausible argument that Shaw is unfit for retention, or that he and three other justices wrongly applied the Constitution to the state's parental consent law. If they don't like the Constitution, there are ways to change it. Voters should ask them why they think it's easier just to mount a revenge attack on Shaw.
We strongly urge a landslide of yes votes to retain Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander J. Shaw, and to preserve the integrity of the judiciary.
2nd District Court of Appeal
As best we can determine, all six judges up for review have performed well and deserve to be retained in office, and a statewide poll of lawyers by the Florida Bar reached the same conclusion. The Times strongly recommends a "yes" vote for the following judges:
Chris W. Altenbernd, 41, a 1972 honors graduate of the University of Missouri and 1975 graduate of Harvard Law School. An Iowa native, he practiced law in Tampa for 13 years before joining the bench, and his civic activities include the March of Dimes. He joined the court on Jan. 1, 1989.
Paul W. Danahy Jr., 62, a University of Tampa graduate who earned his law degree from the University of Florida in 1957. He has served as an assistant Florida attorney general and spent eight years in the Florida House of Representatives. He joined the court in 1977.
James E. Lehan, 61, an Illinois native who earned his graduate and undergraduate degrees at the University of Virginia. He has been active in the Episcopal Church and taught a course on the American court system at the University of Tampa. He joined the court in November 1982.
Jerry R. Parker, 50, an Oklahoma native who now resides in Clearwater. He has served as a special agent for the FBI, a Pinellas County judge and a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge. He joined the 2nd DCA in 1988.
David F. Patterson, 51, a Cincinnati native who attended the University of Florida and Stetson University college of law. He practiced law in St. Petersburg and has served as a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge. He joined the 2nd DCA on Jan. 2, 1989.
Herboth S. Ryder, 62, a Tallahassee native who attended Florida State University and the University of Florida college of law. He has been an assistant state attorney, a circuit judge and a Hillsborough County Court of Record judge. He joined the 2nd DCA in 1977.
Again, we recommend a "yes" vote for all seven appellate judges.
Boyer for Sixth Circuit, Group 35
Lawyer Bruce Boyer was the first candidate for Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge this year to rule out shopping for campaign contributions, a strong statement that no one will influence his decisions from the bench.
That sensitivity to ethics, along with his varied legal experience and strong interest in teaching about his profession, earned him the Times' endorsement over a three-candidate field in the Sept. 4 primary election. Now Boyer faces a runoff against Charles W. Cope, whose experience and qualifications closely match Boyer's.
It was a close call then, and we're still impressed with Cope, but we have seen nothing to make us change our recommendation.
Boyer, 43, lives in Seminole and has a law office in Palm Harbor. He graduated from the University of Kentucky Law School and worked as a prosecutor with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office from 1978 to 1983. Cope too is a former prosecutor, with six years in the same office.
We recommend Bruce Boyer for judge, Sixth Judicial Circuit, Group 35.
Opportunity to reply
The St. Petersburg Times offers candidates not recommended by its editorial board an opportunity to reply in print. If Charles Boyer wishes to take advantage of that offer he should send his reply of 300 words or fewer to Robert Pittman to arrive prior to 9 a.m. Oct. 31.