The making of a federal judge

The three South Florida finalists advancing for consideration for a coveted opening on the federal bench in the Southern District are to be congratulated. They’ve earned it.

On Thursday, they, along with other aspirants to the prestigious, lifetime appointment, sat on the hot seat in a large conference room on the 14th floor of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse in downtown Miami.

A member of the Miami Herald Editorial Board was present as the 20-plus members of the Florida Judicial Nominating Commission quizzed and grilled the 15 candidates for 25 minutes each, the final phase of a long process that began in July for the privilege of having their names recommended to Florida’s two U.S. senators.

In this race, voters did not pick the winner; the blue-ribbon panel made up of local legal eagles and community leaders had the honor — and somehow that seemed right and how, perhaps, it should be done for all judicial races.

The different selection processes for state and federal judges — the first are generally elected, the latter selected — highlighted the anemic slate of judicial candidates and bitter races with plenty of mudslinging that played out in Miami-Dade and Broward last month. Judicial decorum was missing among a number of candidates.

Many of the eight contested circuit and county races in Miami-Dade were marked by the emergence of political committees supporting judicial candidates. Rival committees sent out biting attack mailers, unsavory in a judicial race, and scary — these are nonpartisan races in which candidates can only promise to follow the law. The most bitter contest pitted former Miami-Dade School Board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla against Veronica Diaz, an assistant attorney with the city of Miami. She eventually won.

Race and ethnicity also came into play, as has happened in the past. For example, the supporters of incumbent Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rodney “Rod” Smith, who is black, accused unsuccessful challenger Christian Carrazana of running with the hope his last name appealed to voters in the heavily Hispanic county, a charge that Mr. Carrazana denied.

None of that took place Thursday in the conference room where committee members drilled down to gauge the smarts, temperament and dedication of each candidate.

An opening on the federal bench — this one created by the elevation of Judge Robin Rosenbaum to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit — usually attracts dozens of local state circuit judges, federal magistrate, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Tampa attorney John Fitzgibbons, the JNC’s statewide chair, expressed surprise at how few members of the public were present as the herd of candidates was thinned on Thursday, a process open to the community.

“The appointment of a federal judge is one the most important things we do,” Mr. Fitzgibbons told the Editorial Board.

Despite accusations that the nominating process is highly political depending on whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House and that the confirmation process can also lead to rejection or drag on for months, Mr. Fitzgibbons said that’s not the case at this selection level.

“The selection is a remarkably bipartisan process,” the JNC chair said. “Our only mission is to send to our senators the best judicial candidates.”

The three selected by the JNC Thursday night now move on to interviews with Florida U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, who will choose the finalist. President Obama will make the nomination, which then requires Senate confirmation.

Should that go smoothly — it doesn’t always — the nominee will become South Florida’s newest federal judge, having had the courage to be thoroughly vetted.