GUEST EDITORIAL: Repair broken judicial election system
There are two ways that trial judges reach the bench in Florida.
When vacancies occur, the governor can make appointments from a list recommended by a judicial nominating commission, a tried-and-true method that has stood the test of time without much scandal.
And there are elections, which are a challenge for voters who don’t know much about the candidates. But at least they provide some access.
Then there is a third way for candidates to reach the bench, a distortion of the rules. An incumbent judge retires right before qualifying ends, leaving just one person left.
This short-circuits both methods. And it leaves the system ripe for charges of insider knowledge.
That is what happened when Jacksonville Circuit Judge Tyrie Boyer Jr. resigned from the bench just before qualifying for the election ended.
That left just one other person in the race, Michael Kalil. How did Kallil know to apply when there is a strong local tradition of not challenging incumbent judges in this district?
As Jacksonville attorney Steve Spudic emailed to the Times-Union, “I may be jaded, but to me, impossible coincidences are just that — impossible.”
Two former Bar presidents expressed concerns to Times-Union reporter Andrew Pantazi. So kudos to the Florida Bar for opening an investigation into the Boyer-Kalil case.
The people need to know how this happened and whether Florida Bar ethics rules were broken. But the system needs to be changed.
The obvious reform is that when an incumbent judge retires there must be sufficient time for candidates to apply, such as a 30-day cooling off period. Otherwise, the selection should go to the appointment process.
Barbara Barrett of Ortega, a retired attorney from another state, emailed, “At issue here are questions larger than ethics, integrity and propriety. Stealing the honor from the judicial system and the violation of sacred oaths of officers of the courts cut deep into the character of the judiciary and of the Florida Bar.
“Judges for the Florida Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are chosen through merit selection. A commission, made up primarily of lawyers interviews and vets the candidates and makes recommendations to the governor, presumably forwarding the names of the candidates most qualified for the position. Merit selection should also be the process for picking the judges for the lower courts.
“And Florida should also adopt the provision that some other states have enacted — all boards and commissions must be gender-neutral in order to minimize the good ole boy tradition that seems to be so prevalent here.”
The bottom line was well expressed by attorney Spudic: “A Florida Circuit Court judge has enormous powers. He or she can award huge money judgments, admit or exclude evidence at trial, sentence people to life in prison, and, with a jury’s recommendation, sentence a person to death. If ever there was a position that demands integrity, honor and fairness, it is this one.”
So investigate this case. And change the system so it never happens again.
This editorial originally appeared in the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.