There’s got to be a better way to seat judges

When I think of the traits that are essential for someone to be a good judge, I immediately identify characteristics such as legal ability and understanding of legal principles, courtroom experience, record and reputation, temperament and community involvement. As a Miami-Dade County voter, and as someone who has served on several endorsement panels for various organizations, I have serious concerns about the quality of the candidates that are running for this very important post. I also have reservations about the election process through which we are selecting the members of our lower courts.

For years I have heard the scuttlebutt from attorney friends about this judge’s “lack of insight” or that judge’s “specific biases.” For a long time I wrote these characterizations off as exaggerations stemming from professional jealousy or resentment. Unfortunately, the more I have interviewed judicial candidates the more I realize how accurate some of my friends’ observations are.

Barring a handful of extremely qualified and motivated candidates or incumbents, the choices for Miami-Dade County judges were dismal. When I sat on one panel, I heard a judicial candidate drop in a couple of F-bombs while making his case as to why he is a better choice than the incumbent. I wondered how this person could be part of the Florida Bar much less run for judge. I was also privy to a screening session with a sitting judge where she explained to us how she was so experienced that she now rules mainly by “instinct and gut reaction.”

I am disheartened, and downright concerned, at the pool of candidates running for a seat on the bench. Generally, the more successful, knowledgeable attorneys who are in private practice make at least three times what a county court judge earns. Which begs the question: How many well-compensated attorneys in private practice would take a drastic pay cut to don the judge’s robe? Undoubtedly, there are exceptions — principled practitioners of the law who place a premium on honorably serving society.

Currently, the only professional requirement to become a judge in Miami-Dade County is to be a member “in good standing” with the Florida Bar for five years. Perhaps the Florida Bar should lobby the county to require judicial candidates to serve (and gain invaluable experience) as arbitrators or magistrates. Certainly, the five-year prerequisite seems flimsy.

Also troubling is the way we elect local judges. One political insider, who asked not be identified, told me that judges’ races are “superficial and unsubstantial.” “You can’t ask them about very specific issues because they are limited in what they can discuss — races become nothing more than hollow popularity contests where money buys you name recognition and that usually translates into a win.”

As a result, the electorate is generally not well informed on issues that pertain to the courts.

A more-sensible method to selecting our judges would be the merit-retention system — the process by which judges are appointed to the higher courts of Florida. In this system, a nonpartisan committee comprising lawyers and community leaders proposes a short list of candidates for the governor to choose from. Once the appointed judge’s term is over, his or her name will be on a ballot where the electorate votes whether a judge should be retained.

However, the president-elect of the Florida Bar, Ramon Abadin, has a different view of merit retention: “All that particular system does is politicize the process,” he explained.

When I asked Abadin about the imperfections of the existing electoral process for judges, he quickly fired back, “Voters should have a say.”

“Is it imperfect?” he asked, “Of course it is. Welcome to democracy.”