Filling the bench


New players are emerging in Florida’s heated race for governor: judges.

The way they’re named to the bench is rearing its ugly head for Gov. Rick Scott and his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist.

A Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times story reveals that Gov. Scott has named few black judges to the bench. That’s insulting. Mr. Scott has appointed nine black attorneys to judgeships during his four years in office. They include reappointments of three judges who hear job-related injury claims and four county judges who decide small claims and traffic cases.

Not exactly high-profile appointments.

Only twice has Gov. Scott appointed black judges to the more prestigious trial or circuit court. Thirteen of Scott's 14 choices for district courts of appeal judges are non-Hispanic whites, and the other is Hispanic. Those are shamefully low minority numbers.

Statewide, 84 percent of judges are white, 9 percent are Hispanic and 6.6 percent are black, according to data from the court system.

Just as insulting is Mr. Scott's rationale: “What I’m focused on is making sure that the people I appoint understand that there are three branches of government and that they don’t get to legislate. They don’t get to pass laws, just like I don’t get to pass laws.”

Really? Is he assuming black judicial candidates are deficient in that regard?

Other Florida governors have done better:During the same period, former Gov. Crist appointed 12 black judges, including James Perry to the Florida Supreme Court. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed 22 black judges in his first term, including Peggy Quince, the first black female justice on the state Supreme Court. Records to be proud of.

Frustrating for some in the judicial system is how Gov. Scott also has put his personal stamp on the state’s 26 Judicial Nominating Commissions — the bodies screen candidates for judgeships and recommend finalists to him. He seldom approves attorneys recommended to serve on JNCs, making them lopsided.

But Mr. Crist, the Democratic challenger, has his own judge problem. It’s of a different stripe, but effectively being used against him by the Republican Party.

A much-aired political ad featuring a victim of convicted Ponzi swindler Scott Rothstein reminds us that the two men were tight. The ad suggests that the hefty contributions Mr. Rothstein made to Mr. Crist’s 2006 campaign gave Rothstein a say in the judges Mr. Crist named, mainly in South Florida.

That’s a politically motivated accusation, but powerful nonetheless — and disturbing if true.

All this talk comes at a time when the election of judges — the politicizing of the process — is being criticized by some local legal minds, and with reason.

Thomas Spencer, a veteran lawyer, recently wrote a letter to Miami Herald asking for an entire overhaul of the election of judges in Florida. He makes a good point.

He describes the “present spectacle of judicial campaigns” and fundraising as “repugnant.”Some qualified attorneys don’t have the stomach to become politicians.

The current system means anyone can challenge a sitting county or circuit judge — even if they’ve only practiced law for a handful of years. Running for the bench is the same as running for dog catcher.

It’s time to consider making judicial candidates stop saying “Vote for me!” and let governors make the appointments. Removing the politics first, however, will be the hard part of any overhaul.