Although Florida law requires that judicial races in Florida be nonpartisan, three Florida Supreme Court justices who are on the ballot this year are opposed by conservatives who have accused the judges of showing a liberal bent in some of their decisions.
Such accusations have stirred the electoral pot in the days leading to the Nov. 6 election, and the issue was at the center of a Miami Law panel discussion about so-called merit retention and the controversy surrounding the issue in this year's election.
In his opening remarks, former Florida Bar President Burton Young, JD '50, decried what he called the "horror" of seeing a political party investing money "to defeat and destroy the independence of the judiciary." Although no justice has lost a merit retention election since the system was adopted in the mid-1970s, this election is the first in which a political party has opposed the retention of justices.
All three justices – R. Fred Lewis, JD '72; Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince – took part in the discussion, which was sponsored by the Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division. It was just one stop on a tour that the justices have made of several Florida schools, including the University of Florida Levin College of Law and the Florida State University College of Law.
"The merit retention system was put in as a check," Justice Pariente said. "If you had an unethical or incompetent judge, or even if you had a merit selection system, then the voters could say no. The system was not meant to be used to vote out judges so that the ruling political power or party could have its pick."
Although the three justices spoke about their personal qualifications and backgrounds, each made it a point to emphasize the overall impact of merit retention on the judicial system. "This retention really isn't about the three of us per se," Justice Quince said. "We are on the ballot, but what this is really about is what kind of judicial system we want to have in the state of Florida."
When asked by a student how his legal education had influenced the kind of judge he has become, Justice Lewis said, "It was not until I came to Miami Law that the world opened. This is a wonderful community and a great university that has all types of diversity, from gender to race to religion. This is a wonderful place to obtain an education."
Christine Tudor, a second-year student, was listening carefully: "I enjoyed the discussion, particularly Justice Lewis' comment about how his law school education exposed him to diverse cultures and ideas. I've found this to be true in my own law school experience."
Several Miami Law students said after the discussion that they had been inspired to vote on Nov. 6. "We have a constitutional responsibility to uphold the integrity of our judicial system, and this panel discussion encouraged me to vote to keep politics out of our judiciary," said Jessica Bouis, 2L.
"I learned the passion that the justices have for the judicial process, and the effects that a partisan bench can have on the state," Rob Bernstein, 2L. "I plan to vote this weekend on every issue on the ballot."
For more information from the Florida Supreme Court about merit retention, including a list of frequently asked questions, click here.