A new report by the Florida Access to Justice Project (FAJP) puts the spotlight on both the flood of special interest money and lack of diversity in our state court system. The report provides nine key policy recommendations that would ensure a more diverse and impartial court.
“Florida’s judicial system was once a model for the nation. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case,” said Sandy D’Alemberte, a former state legislator and Chair of the Constitution Revision Commission as well as the past president of the American Bar Association, speaking on behalf of the Florida Access to Justice Project. “The fairness and impartiality of our courts is vitally important and these recommendations would go a long way to ensuring both.”
The report found that special interest money spent on state Supreme Court races has more than doubled in the past ten years and continues to increase with $56.4 million being spent in 2011 and 2012 alone. As the cost of races goes up so does the influence of special interest groups.
Political influences present a constant challenge to the independence of the courts and its ability to act as a check and balance. State lawmakers have aggressively and repeatedly attacked the courts, threatening their independence. Just last month a bill (HJR 121) was introduced by Rep. Julio Gonzalez (R-Venice) that would put a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that, if passed, would allow the Florida Legislature to override state court decisions they don’t like with a two-thirds vote.
In addition, Gov. Rick Scott has rejected approximately 90 Florida Bar recommendations for Judicial Nominating Commissions (JNCs) members, prompting one prominent lawyer to say, “It seems as though this governor aims to make the judiciary just another branch of the Governor’s Office.”
“The judiciary plays a special role in our democracy, and should be insulated from politics and special interests,” said Julie Hauserman, Board Chair of Progress Florida, a member of the Florida Access to Justice working group. “Special interest spending on judicial races has also limited diversity on the courts in Florida. The result is, a judiciary that too often doesn’t reflect the communities it serves.”
Florida’s population is 22 percent Hispanic and 16 percent African-American. Yet among the state’s judiciary, fewer than nine percent of judges are Hispanic, and fewer than seven percent are African-American. Last June the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy issued a report, “The Gavel Gap”, which assigned Florida an overall grade of ‘F’ when comparing the race and gender composition of the courts and the communities they serve.
FAJP’s new report makes the following nine recommendations to ensure that we have an independent judiciary in Florida that is reflective of the citizens of our state:
- Make the JNCs truly nonpartisan and remove the governor’s outsized influence over the nominating committees.
- Increase citizen involvement in the nomination process through civic engagement such as invitations to minority bars and better advertising of JNC meetings.
- Create goals and benchmarks that would lead to greater judicial diversity.
- Require non-partisan judicial performance evaluations to provide voters with objective information and help insulate those elections from partisan attacks.
- Lengthen terms for judges and justices to reduce the frequency of retention elections allowing judges to spend more time focusing on impartial decision-making and less time on raising contributions.
- Move to merit selection at all levels of the Florida courts to bolster judicial independence and increase diversity on the courts.
- While we still have judicial elections we need greater voter education and voter mobilization initiatives.
- Improve access to the courts through anti-bias and cultural competency education for JNCs, judges, court staff and attorneys.
- Increase public education efforts to ensure that court users and their family members understand their rights when they interface with the judicial system.
“The Florida Access to Justice Project envisions a judiciary reflective of the diversity of our state. This promotes nominations free from the undue influence of special interest money, with access to justice for all,” said Trelvis D. Randolph, a partner in the Miami office of Cole, Scott & Kissane, P.A. and General Counsel for the Miami-Dade Branch of the NAACP. “The preamble of Florida’s state constitution guarantees ‘equal civil and political rights to all’. If these reforms were enacted, Floridians could be assured of a more diverse and fair system of justice that would limit partisan influence while creating greater public accountability and expanding judicial diversity.”
Please contact Damien Filer using the information above if you would like to arrange an interview with any of the following FAJP spokespersons:
Florida Access to Justice spokesperson bios
Talbot (“Sandy”) D’Alemberte
A former President of the American Bar Association (1991-92), Talbot (“Sandy”) D’Alemberte served as Dean of Florida State University College of Law from 1984 to 1989 and was appointed president of Florida State University in 1993, serving in that capacity through January 2003.
A member of the American Law Institute, he was a member of the Florida House of Representatives from 1966-1972. He is also a past Chair of the Constitution Revision Commission. D’Alemberte has won numerous national awards for his contributions to the profession. He is the author of The Florida Constitution (Greenwood Press 1991).
Julie Hauserman is the Board Chair of Progress Florida, and a longtime advocate and Florida writer who lives in Tallahassee. She has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the Scripps Howard National Journalism Awards’ top environmental prize for her work on the arsenic stories.
Hauserman was a Capitol bureau reporter in Tallahassee for seven years and has been a commentator for Florida Public Radio’s Capital Report and National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition-Sunday. Her work has been published in anthologies as well as many newspapers and magazines.
Tony Lima, a member of the Florida Access to Justice working group, is an external affairs professional with more than 19 years of experience in crafting and executing programs that combine advertising, social marketing, media relations, social media, corporate communications, fundraising, guerrilla and event marketing, public affairs and community relations.
Under his leadership, SAVE successfully sued the state of Florida to legalize same-sex marriage in early 2015 and passed comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for transgender individuals at the Miami-Dade County Commission. Tony was also named a Top Latino Leader by Latino Leaders Magazine. In 2013, he was named “Top 20 Under 40” by Brickell Magazine.
Trelvis D. Randolph
Trelvis D. Randolph is a partner in the Miami office of Cole, Scott and Kissane, P.A. He began his legal career in the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office where he represented clients charged with misdemeanor and serious felony offenses.
Mr. Randolph is the current President-Elect of the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr., Bar Association. He serves on the Board of Directors of SAVE. He is also involved in the National Bar Association; NAACP, Miami-Dade Branch (also serves as General Counsel); and the Miami Minority Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Randolph has proudly served the United States of America as an infantry soldier in the United States Army, as well as the Tennessee Army National Guard.