Eugene Pettis
Eugene Pettis (Melanie Bell)

Improving diversity in the Florida judiciary will require much more than convincing the governor of its importance, a special Florida Bar task force concluded.

A report released by the diversity task force found resistance among members of state Judicial Nominating Commissions to the idea that they even have a role in promoting diversity. The Florida Bar Board of Governors on Friday approved the 10 recommendations in the task force report.

“It is now time for bold leadership to stay focused and advance this issue,” said Florida Bar president Eugene Pettis of Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm in Fort Lauderdale, the first African-American attorney to lead the organization.

The recommendations include a call for Gov. Rick Scott to fill 78 vacancies on JNC panels by next month with diverse appointments. This year is what Pettis called a “motherlode” year, a peak year for commission vacancies timed to four-year cycles.

The report also suggests the Bar should work with Scott to let JNC appointees know that diversity matters. It urges Scott not to reject slates of nominees the Bar recommends after a rigorous review process, although state law gives the governor the final say on judicial and JNC appointments.

Pettis declined to grade the governor’s performance to date, calling that counterproductive. However, the task force reported Scott has rejected entire slates of nominees from the Florida Bar for JNC appointments 18 times.

“No prior governor of Florida has rejected a slate of JNC nominees,” the task force said.

Pettis said in an interview Monday that the Bar’s focus is better served on educating decision makers.

“We are optimistic that through this education process the governor will better appreciate the Bar’s efforts of selecting people that are in line with his interests and the state’s interests, as well as committing to truly diversifying the bench and JNCs,” Pettis told the Daily Business Review.

Politics V. Merit

Task force concerns went well beyond the governor’s office. Many JNC members in a survey questioned the value of outreach to encourage diversity.

Anonymous respondents said such things as: “The system works. Do not attempt to fine tune it with false diversity activities,” and “I do not vote for a class of applicant. I vote for those who I believe can do a good job as a judge.”

Those impressions were contrary to comments submitted by applicants for judicial positions. Task force chair Frank Scruggs of Berger Singerman in Fort Lauderdale emphasized a Bar survey found three-fourths of respondents from a general sample and almost two-thirds of JNC applicants said partisan politics is too often more important than merit in determining who is selected.

Pettis cited a 2010 Brennan Center for Justice report on judicial diversity from the nonpartisan public policy and law institute at New York University, which found JNCs being part of the recruiting process has proven results.

“Some of them don’t feel that’s a part of their responsibility and others do, which leads me to believe we need to have a dialogue to coordinate what is their true role,” Pettis said.

Another finding of the Brennan Center report adopted by the task force recommends the governor and Bar appoint a diversity officer to work jointly on the JNC review process and determine whether the process impedes the recruitment and nomination of a diverse applicant pool.

Pettis suggested the diversity officer would be a position at the Florida Supreme Court, but it might be in the governor’s office.

He said he will work on implementation of the action items during his final month as president before president-elect Gregory Coleman of Critton Luttier & Coleman in West Palm Beach takes over.

Deeper Pool

Coincidentally, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Bar’s Diversity Symposium. Pettis said the Bar met some of the initial goals, including the creation of a diversity officer to address minority and female promotion in the private sector.

Another goal was the election of the Bar’s first African-American, which was achieved with Pettis’s election.

The Bar made progress under the two previous governors, but he said “there’s been some slippage” under Scott, Pettis said.

“I think one of the biggest glaring problems we have is a lack of focus and commitment,” he said.

The legal community talks about diversity but tends to get distracted, Pettis said. However, when a concerted effort is made, he sees positive results.

Pettis noted the Bar has just completed its JNC appointment process.

“In January, I was concerned we didn’t have the depth of pool we were looking for,” he said.

The Bar extended the application process six weeks and went around the state declaring a call to action. Motivated by his fervor, the Bar received a total of 688 applicants for 40 positions, and 120 names were forwarded to the governor.

“It was the most we had ever gotten by as least 25 percent,” Pettis said.