With the first round of Primary Elections behind us  (Aug 30) we look to the General Election Nov. 8.

While this is an election year, unlike any that we have seen, we are not offering comment on the presidential election.  Instead, we are looking at the election of Judges in Florida.  Of all that we as citizens get to vote on, the judicial elections and retention are among some of the least publicized, and least understood.

Hats off to the Florida Bar who publishes an excellent guide to help all voters understand how Florida Judges, Judicial Elections, and Merit Retention works.  The following is copied verbatim from that guide.

1. What are the differences between a county judge, a circuit judge and  an appellate judge?

In Florida, both county and circuit judges are trial judges. County judges hear criminal misdemeanors – those are crimes that have possible sentences of less than one year in jail– and civil cases in which the amount in dispute is $15,000 or less. Circuit judges deal with criminal felonies, domestic relations, juvenile matters, probate issues and civil cases in which the disputed amount is greater than $15,000. Judges on the five District Courts of Appeal and the Florida Supreme Court review the decisions of county and circuit trial courts.

2. What is a “nonpartisan” election?

In nonpartisan elections, candidates appear on the ballot without reference to any political party (e.g. Democrat or Republican). Florida law requires judicial elections to be nonpartisan in order to preserve the impartiality of the judge’s position.

3. Why are county and circuit judges elected in Florida?

Florida law requires an individual seeking a position as a county or circuit judge to qualify as a candidate for a judicial election. Once qualifications are met, candidates may run in nonpartisan elections.

4. Are all judges elected in Florida?

No. Currently, most circuit and county court judges are elected. If there is a mid-term vacancy – for example, if a judge retires, resigns or dies before the end of the judge’s term – the governor fills the position by appointment. Additionally, Florida Supreme Court justices and District Court of Appeal judges are appointed by the governor and then run in merit retention elections to stay in office.

5. Why are judicial elections not held in November during general elections?

Most judicial races appear on the primary ballot and then on a subsequent ballot in the general election only if no candidate receives a majority of votes during the primary. While this means that many judicial races never appear on the general election ballot, it allows for the second round of voting during the general election if necessary.

6. Why don’t judges campaign on platforms?

Judicial candidates are prohibited from making predictions and promises about issues that could arise once they are on the court because their job is to make impartial decisions that relate to the law on the cases before them.

7. What are the qualifications for running for a judicial seat?

A person is qualified to run for judicial election after earning a law degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. All candidates for trial judge also must be members of The Florida Bar for at least five years. Appellate judges also must be members of The Florida Bar for at least 10 years. Furthermore, judicial candidates must live in the
geographic areas they will serve when they take office.

8. How long is the term of a judge?

Circuit judges and county court judges are elected for six-year terms. To retain their seats, they must be re-elected. Judges who were appointed to county or circuit court through a vacancy must sit for election at the end of the remainder of their appointed terms. Appellate judges, appointed by the governor, are subject to run in merit retention elections.

9. Do judges have term limits?

No, judges do not have limits on the number of times they may be elected. However, judges may not serve in Florida past the age of 70 except upon temporary assignment or to complete a term, one-half of which has been served before their 70th birthday.

10. Why is it important to vote in judicial elections and merit retention elections?

Florida requires that judges be elected or retained by the voters, so the power over who holds these important positions rests with the voters. Judges make decisions on a wide range of issues large and small including traffic, small claims, landlord-tenant, personal injury, criminal, death penalty, probate, guardianship and others.

11. What exactly does a judge do?

Trial judges preside over trials and hearings. In court, judges make decisions on the acceptability of testimony and evidence. Judges also ensure that jurors understand the law. When a jury is not required, the judge decides the case based on applicable law and the judge’s knowledge of the law. District Court of Appeal judges decide appeals of trial court decisions. Supreme Court justices decide death penalty appeals and appeals from  decisions of the appellate courts; resolve conflicts among appellate courts; and oversee the administration of Florida’s court system.

12. What makes someone a “good” judge?

Judges must be impartial, fair and understand the law. All judges may deal with cases that are either civil or criminal in nature. Knowledge in one particular area is not more important than the other. Judges should be selected based on their legal abilities, temperament and commitment to follow the law and decide cases consistent with a judge’s duty to uphold the law regardless of his or her personal view.

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