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Selection of judges debated

Electing judges by popular vote can breed corruption, the Florida Bar president Tuesday told a gathering of women and minority lawyers.

Ben Hill, president of the Bar, said the state needs a constitutional amendment to give the governor power to appoint trial judges.

But lawyer Delano Stewart told the 100 people in the audience that appointing judges was far too political; electing judges is far more democratic.

The debate between Stewart and Hill at the Tampa Club was co-sponsored by the Hillsborough Association of Women Lawyers and the Hillsborough chapter of the National Bar Association.

Hill said judicial candidates must pay "exorbitant" campaign costs, and they raise most of the money from lawyers who will argue cases before them.

"It destroys the independence of judges," Hill said.

Stewart said the real reason Hill and other white male lawyers want the governor to select judges is that blacks and women have been gaining ground in elections.

"The good old boy network is breaking down," said Stewart, who is black. "The oligarchs are no longer in control."

Trial judges in circuit, county and traffic courts are chosen in elections.

Appellate judges are appointed by the governor after being nominated by selection committees from around the state.

A change would require an amendment to Florida's constitution.

Selecting trial judges by committee would be no less political than electing them, Stewart said. "We're lying to say to ourselves that there's no politics on judicial selection committees."

Hill agreed that selection committees would be somewhat political, but they could make more reasoned, impartial decisions than voters. He said more women and blacks would be chosen because law requires blacks and women on such committees.

Choosing judges by election amounts to holding a popularity contest where the best campaigner wins, Hill said.

"What does flying a banner around Tampa Stadium have to do with being a judge?" Hill said. "I question the wisdom of someone who solicits votes at a Bucs game."