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Judicial race is an exercise in extortion

February 28, 1990

The billboards and bus benches shout the news: Soon it will be time to go to the polls and elect our judges.

What a joke.

All around Florida, circuit and county judges already are out pressing the flesh, leeching campaign contributions from the very attorneys who bring cases before them. It's as close to naked extortion as you can get, but don't blame the judges.

It takes loads of money to run a political race. If you're a candidate for a judgeship, the logical place to solicit is law firms because (a) lawyers have the dough and (b) they're the only ones who have the remotest idea who you are.

The public, in most instances, hasn't got a clue.

The average voter walks into the booth and picks a name that looks distinguished or vaguely familiar. He hasn't the vaguest notion of whether or not the candidate is qualified to sit on the bench. Without reading the small print, he couldn't even tell you whether the vacancy is in criminal or civil court, county or circuit.

Unless a judge recently has been involved in a steamy scandal or a high-profile criminal trial, he or she remains largely anonymous to everyone but courthouse regulars. By the time the primary rolls around in September, most people will be taxed even to recall the name of the man who sentenced Miami policeman William Lozano.

You can't blame the voters for not knowing who's who. In Dade County alone, 97 county and circuit judges must run for office. Broward has 62 judges; Palm Beach County, a mere 39. Says Florida Bar President Steve Zack: "Walk up to your favorite lawyer and ask him to name all the judges. It's an impossibility."

The election process is not only shallow but tainted. It rewards the candidates who can afford the best billboardsin other words, those able to squeeze the most money out of lawyers. When the same lawyers later appear in that judge's courtroom, we are supposed to believe that the judge's actions will not be swayed by the memory of political generosities, or lack thereof.

The concept of "selling" judges is tricky because they don't campaign like county commissioners or congressmen; the nuances of someone's judicial record can't be compressed into a snappy to-second sound bite. Judges can't even take a public stand on issues; they are forbidden by a code of ethics.

So what can they talk about on the political trail? Absolutely nothing of substance. Name recognition is everything; billboards, balloons, blarney. Typically we are better informed about our choice of stick deodorant than our choice of judges.

The Florida Bar and many in the judiciary want reform. Several bills have been filed in Tallahassee that could lead to a change in the way we pick circuit and county judges. Merit selection is the most logical option.

Under this methodcurrently used in 34 states and our own appellate courtspanels composed of lawyers, appointees and lay people submit lists of qualified candidates to the governor, who then chooses the judge. Every few years, voters get a chance to decide whether to keep or remove that judge.

Those who support the present charade wave the flag and beat their breasts. They warn that merit appointments could be spoiled by politicsyet what's more political than the current spectacle of judges out hustling support from law firms?

Critics also wail that merit selection robs the public of the right to choose. It's nonsense. By voting yes-no on retention, the public will hold the ultimate power to replace any judge.

To argue patriotically in favor of judicial elections is fatuous, because the vast majority of incumbent judges run unopposed. It is no accident. Many of them find campaigning so distasteful that they hire "consultants" to steer potential opponents into other races, or discourage them altogether from running.

It is a loathsome and smelly enterprise, but the hacks who manage these campaigns want to keep things just the way they are.

Personal-injury lawyers back in chase by mail May 12, 1994 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Judges think fast to explain needles, money June 17, 1991