Tuesday, November 2, 2010

An expensive election

No, I'm not talking about the 2010 general election. I'm referring to the continuing cost to taxpayers of having elected Judge N. James Turner to the bench in 2008.

As I monitored portions of Judge Turner's hearing before the Judicial Qualifications Commission last week, I couldn't help but feel that the manner in which we elect judges is fraught with peril.

Most of the judges that CourtWatch monitors do a good job on the bench. Others have exhibited disrespectful attitudes to the individuals in their courtrooms (yelling at or demeaning the attorneys and/or others from the bench), some seem hesitant to impose sentences that do more than give a little slap on the wrist, and others provide what appears to be "assembly line" justice.

CourtWatch never monitored Judge Turner because he was assigned to Osceola County. However, I did have occasion to witness his performance at the candidate's panel sponsored by the League of Women Voters in 2008. Two comments he made were memorable: (1) he thought he should be elected because he had been in the race longer than any other candidate; and (2) he had the most yard signs.

Perhaps he was simply trying to be amusing. But his remark struck me as flippant. When asked why we should vote for them, most candidates say that they'll be fair, impartial and uphold the law. Sometimes they talk about the crisis facing the court system as a result of budge cuts. Or they may offer ideas about how to improve the juvenile justice system.

Sadly, the majority of citizens know little or nothing about the men and women who have the power to impact individual lives in a profound way - particularly in the Domestic Relations courtrooms.

The Judge Turner investigation, in addition to Seminole County Judge Ralph Eriksson's recent reprimand by the Supreme Court, prompted me to learn more about how someone becomes a judge.

There are two ways that one may become a judge:
  • Any attorney who has been a member of the Florida Bar for 5 years or more may become a candidate for judge (a race costs in the range of $200k to conduct) in the general election (held in even-numbered years). Additionally, they must live in the district in which they plan to serve and must be a registered voter. There is no interview process, no vetting of candidates, no nothing.
  • If a seat becomes available due to retirement or death, a Judicial Nominating Commission interviews candidates to replace that judge. The JNC presents up to 6 names to the governor, who then has 60 days to select the new judge. After serving for a full year, if the new judge wishes to retain their job, they must run for election in the next election cycle.

    Such is the case later this month for vacancy that will soon be left by Judge Cynthia Mackinnon (who does a very good job in our injunction court). The interview process involves completing a 40-page application and providing 3 years worth of tax returns or a net worth statement. The interviews will be held on Tuesday, November 16th and are open to the public. Details here.
Last week, Judge Turner testified that his entire legal career consisted of tax, insurance and employment law. No domestic relations or criminal experience. He worked at four different firms in the first 8 years of his career, until he hung out his own shingle in 1991. He indicated that he was unfamiliar with his responsibilities as judge, and admitted that the work was exhausting and it drained him.   He also appeared to have little to no experience in working with staff.

There was testimony that he had put all his financial "eggs" into one basket (his campaign to win the judgeship) and had no contingency plan if he lost. I imagine this put great pressure upon him. He admitted that as a candidate, he tried to be as "sycophantic" (his words, not mine) as possible. He showed poor judgment in building relationships with, and seeking the support of several political activists for what is supposed to be a non-political race.

Finally, allegations of inappropriate conduct with all four JAs (Judicial Assistants) in the 16 months he was on the bench have been well covered by the media.

CourtWatch believes that all candidates for judge should be subjected to the vetting that is done when filling a mid-term vacancy. A candidate should have experience across a broad range of the law. A candidate should be able to manage their finances well. If this were done, the citizens could at least have some degree of confidence that the individuals on the ballot have met some basic criteria that would make them suitable for the bench.

For most of us, selecting a judge on a ballot is like flipping a coin. Two years ago, citizens in the Ninth Judicial Circuit made a costly choice with their votes. We're continuing to pay the salary of a judge who has been banned from the courthouse and we're paying to investigate the allegations against him.


  1. There is peril with both methods of putting judges on the bench. Some good judges would not be on the bench because they don't have the political connections to make it, i.e. Belvin Perry, Bob LeBlanc, Steve Jewett. I suspect that now questions will be asked in the interviewing process the prospective judges views on Roe v. Wade and other laws that the Governor may want to overturn.

  2. The governor's judicial appointees have not always been the best of the nominees, nor have they always done well on the bench. Often the appointed circuit judges have been chosen from among the well-connected civil lawyers, many of whom look down on prosecutors and defenders of criminal cases as lower-order beings. Some civil attorneys appointed perhaps underestimated the difficulty of the typical initial assignment to a criminal division for several years, and treat it as a forced endurance.

    There is a good argument to be made for bifurcated trial courts -- criminal and civil -- such as some other states have. I think only those who have demonstrated the willingness and fortitude required for prosecuting and defending murder, sexual battery, child molesting and other violent crimes should be judging criminal cases. Let the faint of heart do the civil stuff. By the same token, it is inefficient to push most twenty-year criminal attorneys to decide matters not brought to memory since the Bar exam.

    There is also a good argument for taking the gags off candidates for judicial office; the media have not thoroughly investigated the candidates or assessed the performance of sitting judges, relying instead on those popularity contests conducted by the criminal defense bar and publishing the results as if they were more significant than the "Cutest Seventh Grade Boy and Girl" votes at my junior high school. Only the candidates themselves have the motivation to speak truth about their opponents; severe sanctions should result if they misrepresent anything.