- By Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Along with deciding hotly-contested gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and other political races, Palm Beach County voters on Nov. 6 will be asked to weigh the performance of four judicial officeholders who have no opposition.
As part of a 42-year-old ritual, voters will be asked to simply give a thumbs up or thumbs down to Florida Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson and Judges Burton Conner, Jeffrey Kuntz and Carole Taylor, all jurists on the West Palm Beach-based 4th District Court of Appeal. It hears appeals from circuit courts that cover Palm Beach, Broward, St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River, and Okeechobee counties.
The so-called merit retention system was adopted in 1976 to curb growing corruption that threatened the independence of the judiciary.
While campaigns were waged in 2010 and 2012 to block several Supreme Court justices from holding onto their jobs, so far no opposition has surfaced this year. Since the system was adopted, no appeals court judge in the state has failed to survive a merit retention election.
For Lawson and Kuntz, who were both appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016, it will be the first time their names will be before voters. Veteran appeals judges Burton and Taylor have previously been on the ballot. In a Florida Bar poll, all were overwhelming recommended for retention by the roughly 5,200 lawyers who participated.
All four jurists are vying for six-year terms. However, because Taylor is 66 year old, she would be forced to step down in three years when she reaches the mandatory retire age of 70. However, that could change if voters on Nov. 6 approve Amendment 6, which would raise the retirement age to 75.
Here’s a look at those who face merit retention:
FLORIDA SUPREME COURT
Appointment: December 2016 by Gov. Rick Scott
Education: Bachelor’s degree in parks, recreation and tourism management, Clemson University; law degree, Florida State University.
Experience: Judge, 5th District Court of Appeal, 2006-2016; judge, 9th Circuit Court, 2002-2005; assistant Orange County attorney, 1997-2001; general counsel, Verses Wear (a Christian-themed clothing start-up), 1996; associate and partner, Steel Hector & Davis, 1987-1995.
Notable: Lawson, 57, snared headlines and conservative support in 2012 when he was the lone dissenter in a 5th district decision that allowed a child to have two legally recognized mothers. The decision, upheld by the Florida Supreme Court, was akin to eliminating laws “prohibiting same-sex marriage, bigamy, polygamy, or adult incestuous relationships,” he wrote. This year, Lawson wrote a majority opinion striking down restrictions that have prevented biological dads from rearing children if the mothers of the children were married to someone else.
4th District Court of Appeal
Appointment: February 2011 by Gov. Rick Scott
Education: Bachelor’s of arts in history, Duke University; Law degree, University of Florida.
Experience: Judge, 19th Judicial Circuit, 1997-2011; partner, Conner & Hooker, P.A., 1996-1997; owner, Burton C. Conner, P.A., 1989-1996; judge, Okeechobee County, 1984-1988. associate, Conley & Conley, P.A., 1979-1984; assistant public defender, 19th Judicial Circuit, 1978-1979.
Notable: Conner, 65, was appointed to the Okeechobee County bench by Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, the 19th Circuit bench by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and interviewed with Republican Gov. Charlie Crist for the 4DCA before being appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican.
Appointment: November 2016 by Gov. Rick Scott
Education: Bachelor’s of arts, Boston University; Law degree, Suffolk University.
Experience: Associate and shareholder, GrayRobinson, P.A., 2006-2016.
Notable: Kuntz, 37, is not only by far the youngest judge on the 12-person court, he is also the tallest. He is 6-foot-4 and wears size 14 shoes to support his lofty height, according to a journal of the appellate section of the Florida Bar. Before joining the court, he blogged about Florida appellate court decisions.
Appointment: March 1998 by Gov. Lawton Chiles
Education: Bachelor’s of arts in English education and law degree, University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Experience: Judge, 17th Judicial Circuit, 1995-1998; Broward County judge, 1991-1995; private practice, Carole Yvonne Taylor, P.A., 1984-1991; private practice, Sams, Ward, Newman, Beckham & Elser, P.A., Miami, 1983-1984; assistant U.S. attorney, 1982-1983; assistant public defender, 1979-82; associate attorney, University of Florida, 1977-1979; staff attorney, New Hanover (N.C.) Legal Services, 1976-1977; staff attorney, Legal Aid Society of Durham County (N.C.), 1974-1976.
Notable: Taylor, 66, replaced Barbara Pariente when the longtime West Palm Beach attorney was elevated to the Florida Supreme Court. She became the first African-American on the appeals court just as she had been the first black woman on Broward County’s circuit bench.