At this point in the election season, most of us likely know who or what we’re picking in almost every type of race — Governor, Senator, congressional, local elections — but there is one area of the ballot that still catches some voters by surprise: merit retention for Florida Supreme Court Justices and Appellate Court Judges.
You won’t see TV ads for appeals court judges. You won’t open your mailbox to find a stack of postcards about our state Supreme Court justices. Frankly, most people don’t even think about judges being “on the ballot” until they’re actually voting, but these nonpartisan races are very important too.
In Florida, ballots feature a sometimes-overlooked section known as “judicial merit retention.” These questions allow voters to decide whether they want a particular judge or justice to remain on the bench for another term.
By now, you’re probably vaguely recalling these questions from past ballots, along with an unsure feeling about how to respond.
Here’s a quick primer on how it works: Voters may elect county and circuit judges, but not appeals court judges and Florida Supreme Court justices, and these positions are appointed by the governor. However, voters decide every six years whether these judges should remain on the court for another term, with newly appointed justices appearing on the general ballot after their first year on the court and then every six years thereafter.
This year, there are five Florida Supreme Court justices and 28 appeals court judges on the ballot.
So, how do you decide whether those judges deserve another term? What are their roles and responsibilities?
To help educate voters about merit retention elections and the crucial role judges play in the state’s justice system, The Florida Bar has relaunched their voter education initiative called The Vote’s in Your Court for the 2022 Election. It features the nonpartisan Guide for Florida Voters, available in English and Spanish, covering everything from the different roles judges have to what a “yes” or “no” vote on a judge who is up for merit retention means. Our independent judiciary is the cornerstone of our democracy, and these are not partisan races, It’s important to approach these merit retention elections with a focus on qualifications and competency
Most Floridians will most likely never interact with one of the judges they’re voting to retain. Still, there is a great deal of power in voters’ hands, and we all must protect and uphold this essential part of our democracy by learning about merit retention and the important role appeals court judges and justices play in our independent third branch of government.
Gary Lesser is the 74th president of The Florida Bar and Managing Partner of Lesser Lesser Landy & Smith in West Palm Beach.