THE ORLANDO SENTINEL RECENTLY ANNOUNCED ITS ENDORSEMENT OF JUSTICES LABARGA, CANADY & POLSTON
Florida Supreme Court Justice James Perry’s formal announcement last month that he would step down at the end of the year — a decision dictated by the mandatory retirement age for state judges — cast a spotlight on the membership of the state’s highest court.
Under the Florida Constitution, Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to name Perry’s successor. A nine-member commission of lawyers and laymen appointed by the governor will vet applicants and send him a short list of nominees. It’ll be his first opportunity to put his stamp on the high court. He earned that opportunity by being elected and re-elected governor.
But Florida voters also get a say in the Supreme Court’s makeup. After justices are appointed, voters have the power to retain them, or reject them, in the next general election. Then the process is repeated for each justice every six years.
Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga
Interview with Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. Jorge Labarga is FloridaÄôs first Cuban-American to serve as chief justice. HeÄôs lauded for his efforts to make the justice system more accessible, but heÄôs also behind a number of controversial mandates. Examples… (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)
The same process applies to judges on Florida’s five district courts of appeal, who also are appointed by governors. Voters can keep them, or kick them out.
Regardless of the justices’ ideological leanings, the most important question for voters to consider is whether each is qualified to continue serving. And perhaps the most useful information for voters to arrive at that judgment comes from a Florida Bar poll of lawyers familiar with the justices’ work.
Lawyers who responded were asked to weigh in for or against retention of each justice based on eight attributes: the quality and clarity of their judicial opinions; their knowledge of the law; their integrity; their judicial temperament; their impartiality; their freedom from bias; their demeanor; and their courtesy.
When the numbers were tallied, Labarga was recommended for retention by 91 percent of respondents with considerable or at least limited knowledge of the justice. Canady and Polston each were recommended by 84 percent of lawyers personally familiar with those justices’ performance.
Voters in Central Florida also will be presented with the choice of whether to retain four judges on the 5th District Court of Appeal, which oversees circuit courts across the region. The Florida Bar also asked members personally familiar with these judges whether they should be retained. Again, the results were overwhelmingly positive.
Judge Jay Cohen was recommended for retention by 86 percent of respondents. Judge James Edwards also was endorsed by 86 percent. Judge Brian Lambert got the nod from 83 percent. Judge Vincent Torpy scored highest at 87 percent.
Such high ratings from lawyers who best know the work of the justices and judges, and the absence of controversy surrounding any of them, should be more than enough to persuade voters to retain them.
Critics of the retention process often point out that no justice or appellate judge has ever been rejected by voters. But that says more about the high caliber of justices and appellate judges in Florida, and the process for nominating them, than any defects in the system for evaluating them.
The Orlando Sentinel recommends that Floridians vote to retain Supreme Court Justices Jorge Labarga, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston.
The Sentinel also recommends that Central Florida voters retain 5th District Court of Appeal Judges Jay Cohen, James Edwards,