Law Day is Thursday. This year’s theme established by the American Bar Association is “American democracy and the rule of law. why every vote matters?”
The Rule of Law is simply a system of rules and rights that enables fair and functioning societies by establishing individual freedoms and protecting against the manifestation of arbitrary authority by public authorities. It is the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to laws that are fairly applied and enforced.
On this Law Day, it is important to recognize both the special role of the judiciary in upholding the Rule of Law in our country and the role of citizens in ensuring that our judiciary remains fair and impartial by exercising an informed vote.
The importance of all voters’ roles in maintaining a fair and impartial judiciary cannot be understated. The converse is an oppressive system where every judicial decision is predetermined or influenced by outside interests. This concern was expressed in our very own Declaration of Independence. When referring to King George III, it states “He has made judges dependent on his will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” If the king was unhappy with any judicial decision, he could simply remove that judge from office.
Here in Florida our circuit and county court judges are elected by the voters in nonpartisan elections. Appellate court judges and justices of the Supreme Court of Florida are selected through a nonpartisan merit selection process and then appear on the ballot every six years for a merit retention vote as to whether the judge should remain on the bench.
We often hear that voters do not exercise their vote for judicial officers because they are uninformed about the candidates and do not know where to access information about judges on the ballot or do not understand why the judges are on the ballot for a yes-or-no vote.
This is somewhat understandable because much of the work of the judiciary, particularly at the trial court level, is performed outside of the limelight, but it is more important than ever for voters to be informed.
In recent years there has been a significant increase in money being funneled into judicial elections in an effort to target judges whose rulings are unpopular even though these decisions are reasoned applications of the law. A basic tenet of our democracy is that the judges cannot make rulings based upon popular opinion or special interests; it is critical that judges remain fair and impartial.
Anyone in business should understand that the current situation is perilous. The world of commerce is heavily dependent on a properly functioning judicial system. Courts resolve warranty claims, help businesses collect receivables and enforce contracts, to name a few examples.
Business owners need to be confident that the judge hearing their case is competent, fair and impartial, and will follow the law and not bend to political or special interest pressures. Without that confidence, making business decisions become a gamble, and business planning becomes meaningless. In an uncertain judicial environment, businesses will leave the state.
Voters must become informed about judicial candidates prior to reaching the ballot box. As citizens we cannot simply refuse to vote because we are unfamiliar with the candidates or base our vote solely upon advertisements and commercials paid for by special interest groups.
There are many resources for getting informed. To be informed, consider the important characteristics that we want to find in a good judge. A judge should be impartial and unbiased, fair-minded, attentive, respectful, honest, neutral and professional.
Each judicial candidate in a contested judicial race typically maintains a campaign website where information regarding the candidate’s biography and background may be found. Many judges have been appointed by the governor and have gone through the state Judicial Nominating Commission.
To be vetted by the Judicial Nominating Commission—which is made up of nine lawyers and nonlawyers who are vetted themselves—the commissioners speak with hundreds of members of the community to ensure that nominees are qualified to serve.
Many bar associations conduct surveys of sitting judges. These polls completed by attorneys survey the perceived qualification of the sitting members of the judiciary.
For more information you can also visit the Judicial Qualifications Commissions regarding information about complaints made against current members of the judiciary and The Florida Bar website for information about discipline actions for attorneys. Another good source of information is to ask for input from attorneys who appear regularly before the judges.
Preservation of the fairness and impartiality of our judiciary is an ongoing effort. The first step in this effort is increasing the general public’s awareness and understanding of the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary to our democracy.
With limited resources and a narrow window of time, our schools are not always enough to do this job. It is incumbent on all of us to go out and educate our family and friends regarding the role and importance of the third but co-equal branch of government.
Encourage them to get informed regarding the candidates running for judge or appellate judges or justices who appear on the ballot for merit retention.
Teach them to recognize special interest attacks.
Rather than evaluate judges based upon politicized and monied arguments, evaluate them on the aforementioned characteristics that we want to see in our judiciary.
The National Association of Women Judges has created a website for its Informed Voters, Fair Judges project that provides more information and an outlet for citizens to get informed on the matters discussed herein. Check it out at ivp.nawj.org and get informed.