“Make me a judge and I will lock up the criminals and throw away the key.”
T hat is a campaign slogan that will get you elected to the bench.
Judicial campaigns, however, cannot resort to that kind of bluster. The result: Judicial races are some of the blandest contests in all of politics. So bland that voters generally have no idea who they are voting for, if they vote at all.
Consider the purposely vague slogan of Circuit Judge Dale Ross in Broward County: “Legacy of Justice, Commitment to Community and Family.”
Meanwhile, his opponent, Michael “Mickey” Rocque, gives a long-winded dissertation on his campaign homepage summing up his life from birth in suburban New York City to his present-day job representing “hundreds of people in our community with their legal problems and court appearances each year.”
Left unclear: what, exactly, either would do if elected on Aug. 14. They’re simply not allowed to say.
State campaign rules prohibit judicial candidates from making promises of conduct in office aside from the most perfunctory bromides of impartiality.
And while judicial candidates are allowed to speak publicly about their views on specific hot-button issues (like abortion, the death penalty, etc.), few do.
“A judicial candidate may, but is not required to, espouse personal beliefs so long as they also explain that they will follow the law,” said Rebecca Mae Salokar, chairwoman of Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations. “But they tend not to be very forthcoming.”
And so, engaged voters wanting to make an informed decision are forced to read the tea leaves and guess how a candidate will act.
Endorsed by the Police Benevolent Association? That’s a candidate who’s tough on crime! Twenty years of experience as a public defender? Sympathetic to the poor and downtrodden.
Meanwhile, would-be judges are busy appealing to the broadest slice of the electorate possible while raising the funds necessary to mount an effective campaign.
On Primary Day, voters will choose two types of judges: Circuit, who oversee felony criminal cases and major civil litigation (with an annual salary of $142,178 — even more than the governor); and County, who oversee misdemeanors cases and minor financial disputes (salary: $134,280).
It takes a war chest of at least $75,000 to mount a successful campaign, said Gerald Schwartz, who for decades was the house DJ for the county’s game of judicial musical chairs. The campaign consultant, 84, would charge some $20,000 to coach candidates on where and how to run, calling the shots for more than 100 races during his career.
The money goes in part to papering the roadside with campaign signs that generally have a name, a photo, some sort of brief slogan, and little else, although there are subtleties even to that. Edward Newman, an incumbent judge in Miami-Dade, uses aqua and teal in his campaign literature to remind people he was a Miami Dolphins lineman back in the day.
“It’s both an art and a science,” Schwartz said. “Does the candidate with the most money always win? No, but it helps.”
In Schwartz’s hierarchy of importance, fundraising falls behind just endorsements and strong Florida Bar ratings — the scoreboard lawyers use to judge their own.