Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said merit retention for state judges allows for unnecessary politicizing of the judiciary.
Stevens, who retired in 2010, was in West Palm Beach to speak at an event sponsored by the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches and the Palm Beach County Bar Association. He is on a tour promoting his new book, Five Chiefs, in which he expounds on some of the more controversial cases in his long tenure on the high court.
Merit retention elections grabbed the spotlight after conservative interest groups mounted opposition to some state supreme court justices starting in 2010.
The Republican Party of Florida’s executive board, citing a death penalty case, took the unprecedented step of opposing three of the state’s justices — R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — who won their nonpartisan retention votes Tuesday.
Stevens told his audience that facing retention votes exposes judges to the whims of public opinion. Knowing he had a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, Stevens said he was able to view cases solely on their merits, sometimes overturning state Supreme Courts that seemed beholden to public sentiment.
“During my years on the bench, I have not only opposed the popular election of judges, but I have also opposed the use of retention ballots as a method for removing unqualified judges from office,” he said. “Strict ethical standards can be enforced more effectively by the courts themselves or by impartial agencies authorized to investigate misconduct.”
In a lighter moment, Stevens confirmed he witnessed one of baseball’s all-time iconic moments: slugger Babe Ruth pointing to Wrigley Field’s center field before hitting a home run in the 1932 World Series between Chicago and New York.
He added that someone questioned after another speech his recollection that the home run went “out of the park” because the man’s grandfather was in the bleachers that day and retrieved the ball.
So, Stevens, like any good jurist, assigned one of his law clerks to do some research. “He promptly and correctly determined that he hit two home runs that day,” Stevens said.