Editorial: Do more to insulate state judiciary from politics, cronyism

Judicial appointments in Florida smack increasingly of politics and cronyism.

We can thank Gov. Rick Scott for that.

Throughout his two terms, Scott’s judicial appointments have tended to have the taint of partisan ties and political connections. Using such a spoils system to populate our judgeships and important courts is troubling. It leads people to believe that the legal system is tilted toward political and ideological viewpoints. It leads to a judicial bench that is less reflective of our state’s rich diversity.

But we have a way to fix this. The state’s 37-member Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), which is considering 103 proposed amendments to put before voters on the 2018 ballot, must include one that reforms how the state Judicial Nominating Commissions (JNCs) are picked to ensure the independence of the courts.

RELATED: Dozens of changes proposed for Florida Constitution

As of Tuesday, there were six amendment proposals pertaining to the judiciary. But the revision to Article V, Section 11 of the Florida Constitution proposed by Tampa lawyer William “Bill” Schifino, Jr. — appointed to the CRC by Senate President Joe Negron — is the one that drills down to the makeup of the JNCs.

As proposed, the amendment would not only stop a governor from packing the nominating commissions — and thus, judgeships — with political cronies, but “require appointing authorities to the commissions to consider diversity in making appointments.”

When the JNCs were created in the 1970s by then-Gov. Reubin Askew following a series of political scandals, they were designed to keep politics at arm’s length and create a more professional judiciary. For each independent nominating commission, the governor appointed only three members and The Florida Bar appointed three. Those six members together appointed three non-lawyers, making for a balanced and more diverse selection committee. The nine members of the JNC forwarded the most qualified candidates to the governor for appointment.

The system worked for nearly 30 years, and got qualified and competent jurists on the bench with little controversy or debate. This changed abruptly in 2001, when the Legislature gave then-Gov. Jeb Bush the power to make all appointments to the JNCs.

And as the JNCs have gone partisan, so have the judicial appointments the panels recommend. Of about 981 judicial officers, only 144 are either African-American, Hispanic or Asian-American — hardly reflective of a culturally diverse state with a minority population around 43 percent.

That’s something that the current CRC must correct, as Scott has played politics with the nominating panels like no other governor. He is the first, for example, to reject any Florida Bar recommendations for the nominating commissions — nearly 100 in total. A 2014 Florida Bar survey found that three-quarters of its members believe partisan politics is given more weight than merit for JNC appointments.

As to this sorry state of affairs, the governor has simply said he “appoints JNC members and judges who will serve with humility and a respect for the rule of law,” and insists his appointments are not driven by ideology.

But questions about the impact of Scott’s ideology wouldn’t be a factor if the CRC, which meets every 20 years, puts forth an amendment that gives Florida voters the opportunity to return the original independence of the JNCs by removing the governor’s out-sized influence over their make-up.

A merit system for an independent judiciary was an example of government that worked for all Floridians. It was nonpartisan and helped the Florida court system avoid being just another venue for influence-peddling and politics.

Florida voters should be allowed to decide whether they want to return to a process that preserves the fairness and impartiality of the courts.

There is concern that the Constitution Revision Commission, 15 of whom —including its chairman, Carlos Beruff — were appointed by Scott, won’t act. Indeed, the panel has raised concerns with regard to transparency and eschewing public input.

We hope those fears prove unfounded. The commission must allow this measure to go to the ballot and give the people the chance to put justice before partisan politics.

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