Apart from catching up on much-needed rest, studying for the notoriously tedious SAT, and enjoying the Florida sun this summer, I volunteered for a local, non-partisan political campaign for a circuit court judgeship in Palm Beach County, Fla., in which my father was a candidate. Over the course of the summer, I had a unique perspective into the judicial election process, specifically the requirement for judicial candidates in Florida to run for an open seat in a nonpartisan election. After observing both the judicial election process and the partisan political landscape of Florida, I gained first-hand insights on local politics and was able to identify the similarities and contrasts between the two election processes.
One resounding common theme in both partisan and nonpartisan elections is that “every vote matters.” From my perspective, these three words, “every vote matters,” are what drove each candidate to — without hesitation — attend numerous meet-and-greets, travel across the county to speak in front of a crowd with sometimes as few as three people, and repeat his or her stump-speech hundreds of times.
Non-partisan politics, at the local level, is a game of patience and persistence. While it helps if a candidate has prior experience and/or connections with public figures in the community in which he or she is campaigning, this is by no means a prerequisite for the job. In fact, a large majority of the votes cast for a particular judicial candidate are oftentimes random or simply cast on a the basis of name recognition or gender. Because of these circumstances, it is important for each candidate to try and obtain as many individual votes as possible in order to gain an advantage, however small, on election day.
Unlike partisan politics, in which a candidate’s goal is to secure votes based on his or her personal political agenda, judicial candidates in Florida are restricted as to what they can do and say on the campaign trail by a code of ethics. Candidates are prohibited from suggesting or stating how they would rule on certain issues and must disregard any personal or institutional biases when hearing cases. Breaking or even bending these rules can have grave consequences, even if a judicial candidate has already won the election. The Judicial Qualifications Commission and the state Supreme Court have jurisdiction to impose these penalties on candidates who have run afoul of the code of ethics during their campaign, including removal from office. So, while it is well established that the judicial election process is independent from the partisan political scene, at least in Florida, it leads to the lingering and ever-important question in every candidate’s mind: How do voters know which judge to vote for?
The simple answer is their qualifications — that’s what matters, and, furthermore, that is all that the candidates can speak about on the campaign trail. Ultimately, whichever candidate has the most relevant experience, has respectful and impartial character traits, has received significant endorsements from community organizations, and has the skills needed to be a judge, is likely the best choice for the job. To help voters evaluate which candidate fits this profile, different organizations sponsor forums at which candidates are asked by concerned citizens and lawyers in the community about their experiences with the law and their background. As you might imagine, only a small percentage of the community attends these forums. It is that same small percentage that therefore has a clear idea as to which candidate will make the best judge.
Furthermore, the judicial candidates often appear at the bottom of the ballot, following the candidates for such offices as governor, state legislative, and attorney general. This, too, can result in voter unawareness and apathy. These circumstances invalidate traditional campaigning methods such as large-scale polling and often result in an unforeseeable election outcome.
Because of the unique nature of the judicial election process, it is often difficult to identify an ideal method by which the judiciary can maintain its independence from the other branches of government while also ensuring that each successful judicial candidate is indeed the best fit for the job. While I discern some merits to the election process, I have concluded that the most effective way to appoint state court judges would be through a nomination and confirmation process by a commission comprised of a diverse and impartial panel of current judges, lawyers, and representative members of the community that will be served by the judge.
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