One justice on the Florida Supreme Court faces a merit retention vote in November, essentially an up-or-down vote of confidence allowing him to remain on the bench. Merit retention votes occur at least one year after the justice’s initial appointment 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 only justice up for merit retention is Alan Lawson, who was appointed to the court by Gov. Rick Scott in December 2016 to succeed retiring Justice James E.C. Perry. Lawson, 57, has served as a trial lawyer, circuit judge and appellate judge. During his term on the 5th District Court of Appeal based in Daytona Beach, he was twice retained by voters.
Lawson is a conservative judge, but merit retention is not about voicing disagreement with particular opinions. Merit retention allows voters to consider whether the justices are ethical, impartial and qualified and should remain on the court.
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, nearly 2,150 lawyers participated in evaluating Lawson on factors including quality and clarity of judicial opinions, knowledge of the law, integrity and impartiality. Lawson was recommended for retention by 87 percent of those lawyers.
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 finds Lawson has not faced formal charges.
On the merit retention question for Florida Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting yes.