Ring Proposes Changes to Judge Eligibility

By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Nov. 30, 2010 --

The new chair of the Senate’s government accountability committee wants to change eligibility for circuit and county judicial candidates by requiring them to have been a lawyer for 10 years before they can run for judge.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, one of two Democrats having been given a Senate committee chairmanship, has filed a proposed constitutional amendment that requires judicial candidates to have worked as a lawyer in Florida for 10 years, changing it from the current requirement of five years. The change is necessary, Ring said, to ensure that everyone running is qualified.

Laws regulating judicial races virtually prohibit many modern campaign techniques such as making promises to voters or casting doubt on an opponents’ suitability for the office. As a result, Ring said, voters often lack extensive information about the candidates.

“When they’re campaigning, they’re allowed to say very little,” he said. “They have a lot of restrictions on them and someone who is not qualified can easily beat someone who is highly qualified. “

Ring said he began speaking with various stakeholders, including representatives of the Florida Bar, about the issue following the August primary. The judicial elections in Broward particularly troubled him, he said.

In the August primary, there were 20 judicial races in Broward County with 42 candidates. Fifteen of the races involved judicial incumbents. It was tough for voters to distinguish between the candidates, said Ring, who lives in Broward County. He declined to say whether a particular judicial candidate spurred his interest, though.

Unfamiliar judicial candidates have long been an issue, said Tallahassee lawyer Pete Dunbar, who served as general counsel for former Gov. Bob Martinez, and who now represents the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of the Florida Bar.

“In some of the larger circuits, Dade most notorious for it in my era, the circuit is so large in voting population and with the restricting on campaigning for judges, it’s virtually impossible to get good information on your judges,” Dunbar said.

The Florida Supreme Court, which oversees the lower courts, does not opine on proposed constitutional amendments, a Supreme Court spokesman said. Neither has the Florida Bar, though some of their representatives have spoken with Ring about the legislation.

“It’s on our watch list, but we haven’t taken a position on it,” said Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker.

The proposal could set the stage for a number of conversations on the future of the judiciary. In a speech to the Florida House earlier this month, new Speaker Dean Cannon blasted the courts for judicial activism and said the Supreme Court overstepped its constitutional duty by striking down three proposed constitutional amendments that originated in the Legislature.

Cannon later told reporters that he hoped to open a dialogue between legislators and the court system over how each branch should best function, but declined to say whether it foreshadowed any legislative changes.


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