This column appears in Florida Today, a Brevard County paper. But the topic can apply as a national subject as well.
Marshall Frank: Local judges should not be elected
Has anyone ever thought about the system of electing local judges?
Unless a person has been before a judge in a courtroom, or they know the candidate personally, voters usually have no idea for whom or what they are voting. It’s no wonder less than 22 percent of Brevard County’s registered voters turned out to vote in the August primary election.
In that election, several names appeared on the ballot for circuit and county judgeships, most of whom were completely unknown to the general public. Yet, people go to the voting booth and mark their ballots for the names they most often saw on roadside signage, or for the person they declare best qualified because they were an incumbent. No doubt, some unknowing voters will cast ballots based on ethnicity, race, sex or other nonsensible designations.
Few voters even know what qualifications are required for a person to reach the bench in Florida. Amazingly, a judge can be appointed or elected who has virtually no experience as a practicing attorney.
According to state law, anyone can be a circuit or county court judge as long as he or she is a dues-paying member of the bar association for at least five years. That’s it, folks. The man or woman who is weighing evidence and deciding your guilt or innocence in Florida may have been working as a landscaper or computer engineer, and may have never set foot in a courtroom other than moot court in law school. Yet, all we know when we vote is the sound of their name and the images imbedded in our heads from the array of signs and banners.
Theoretically, a vacant judgeship can be filled by a sitting governor based on friendships or quid pro quo, depending on an appointee’s generosity during the election year.
During my 30 years in the Miami-Dade Police Department, I knew judges who were snorting cocaine in their chambers minutes after they sentenced a defendant to prison for possessing the same substance. Others were caught in stings, taking bribes behind chambers to be more liberal with bond setting or sentencing for friends of friends. Yes, they went to prison.
Judges also appoint defense attorneys to indigent defendants in major crimes. I’ve known cases in which the appointed lawyers were so over-the-hill, lazy, drunk or inept, they virtually guaranteed the prosecution a guilty verdict. In one of those cases, the defendant was innocent, but went to prison anyway. The appointed attorney had impressive credentials on paper, but was otherwise incompetent. The lawyer got his money. The state attorney was happy. There were no legal grounds for successful appeals.
There is a way to fix the problem.
Eliminate elections for judges and institute a system for appointing them. Governors can appoint a bipartisan council, which receives recommendations for judges whose backgrounds are reviewed and evaluated, then sent back to the governor for approval. An active list is certified from which appointments provide four or six years of service. When vacancies occur, the governor’s office conducts a blind drawing from the list.
No corruption, no quid pro quo. And a fully qualified, nonpartisan jurist is appointed.
Regardless, we must set higher standards for men and women to serve as judges. Such standards should specify a significant term of practice in the judicial field for which they aspire, such as 10 years working in criminal and/or civil law with extensive trial experience.
This is not to suggest our current servants on the bench are not qualified. I’m sure they are. But for the electorate, for government and for the judiciary, we can do better if we think outside the box.
The days of Judge Roy Bean, when judges were known by everyone in the community, are long over. Let’s modernize.