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New JNC members learn the craft of selecting judges

first_imgNew JNC members learn the craft of selecting judges December 15, 2004 Managing Editor Regular News New JNC members learn the craft of selecting judges Mark D. Killian Managing Editor Gov. Jeb Bush wants the state’s judicial nominating commissions to send him nominees who reflect the people of the state they will serve and who share his judicial philosophy, according to Raquel Rodriguez, his general counsel.“His judicial philosophy is one based on judges having a thorough understanding of the role of the judicial branch as a separate branch from the legislative and the executive: One that understands it is the legislature that writes laws, the governor who executes the laws, and the courts, obviously, interprets them and rules on their constitutionality,” Rodriguez told JNC commissioners at a recent training program in Orlando, cosponsored by The Florida Bar and the Governor’s Office.The curriculum, put together by the Bar’s Judicial Nominating Procedures Committee — chaired by Judge Manuel Menendez — included panel discussion on the judicial selection process and interviewing judicial candidates and training on the Sunshine Law, public records, and interviewing techniques.Rodriguez said the key question nominees are always asked is if they are willing to set aside strongly held personal, political, religious, and moral beliefs and apply the law.“He often says he would rather appoint a political liberal who has a conservative judicial philosophy than appoint a political conservative who is going to be an activist judge,” Rodriguez said.Jacksonville’s Hank Coxe, a member of the Bar’s Board of Governors, also told the commissioners the Bar believes strongly in the merit selection process and stands ready to assist the JNCs in their mission. The Bar, he said, makes available on its Web site applications for JNC and judicial applicants and publicizes the availability of judgeships by posting them on its Web site, and distributing notices to all local media and voluntary Bar association.Coxe also said the Bar is the place to find out about prior discipline of lawyers appearing before the JNCs.“If there has ever been discipline, you can get that from The Florida Bar,” Coxe said. “And we think it is the absolute responsibility of every commission to get that information on every applicant.”Coxe also noted that when the JNC process was amended in 2001 to do away with the Bar’s three direct appointments to each nine-member JNC and was replaced by a system where the Bar now sends the governor slates of three people for each of four seats on each JNC, there was “great fear and consternation this would translate into too much of a shift of power to the governor’s office to control the judiciary, and it gave. . . the governor the power to reject The Florida Bar’s slate of three names.“But those fears have not come to fruition as the governor has never rejected a slate of names submitted by the Bar,” Coxe said.Gov. Bush also considers diversity in making judicial appointments, Rodriguez said.“He strongly believes the judicial bench, like the rest of state government, should be representative of the citizens whom it serves and he makes every effort to make sure the process is an inclusive one and that people of different backgrounds — whatever those backgrounds may be — are given every opportunity to be considered,” Rodriguez said.Rodriguez said since the governor took office, 78 of his judicial appointees have been women, 29 black, 32 Hispanic, and one Asian American. That, she said, means 40 percent of all of Bush’s judicial appointments have been either women or minorities.“I implore you on behalf of the governor to reach out as much as you can to the women’s bar associations, to the minority bar associations, to do extra outreach efforts, and give speeches in the community to explain the JNC process, to let people understand the system,” Rodriguez said.Justice Peggy Quince also told the commissioners the Supreme Court has a great interest in the JNC process and urged JNC members to set aside partisan influences when selecting judicial nominees.“I think the guiding principle you are looking for is judges who can be impartial,” Justice Quince said. “There should be no litmus test to who can be a judge in this state.”Justice Quince said JNCs should also consider a candidate’s character, integrity, knowledge of the law, and willingness to work when evaluating candidates and also look at the applicants’ ability to work collegially with other judges, especially when weighing those seeking DCA appointments.“Your role is critical in getting these kinds of individuals on the bench,” Quince said. “When you are a judge, you are to apply the law and not your personal view of what the law should be.”Coxe also said commissioners should be open-minded when looking at applicants and not fall into the mind-set to reject candidates because they don’t have trial experience or have only criminal experience and no civil experience.“My experience. . . has been that if a person — by way of character and willingness to work — has all the other attributes you would look for in a judge, it does not really matter where they came from,” Coxe said. “The single best trial judge I’ve ever been in front of was a probate lawyer for 25 years. He was bright and willing to work and learned how to be a trial judge and ended up being the best trial judge of all.”Rodriguez said everyone who is nominated by a JNC is interviewed by the governor’s staff and that Bush personally interviews each person nominated for an appellate court opening.“We read each application thoroughly, including the writing samples,” Rodriguez said. “We have full background checks performed by the FDLE.”Rodriguez said her staff also makes “due diligence” calls to the community, including to those listed as references, as well as to opposing counsels, presiding judges, and former law partners. The general counsel’s office also asks those listed as references what they think of the other nominees up for the judgeship.Rodriguez said it is not her place to pick judges for the governor but to provide him with the information he needs in order to make the decisions.“So we tell him the good, the bad, and the ugly — everything we find out about the candidate — and he makes the call,” she said.Rodriguez told the commissioners that if they uncover negative information about a candidate the fairest thing is to allow that person to explain some incident in their history “and show how they have learned from that incident and turned their life around. The governor is very forgiving, and people do change.”Picking the right person for a judgeship, Rodriguez said, is more than who is the most experienced, or respected, or well-known in the community, and includes what the governor views as life experience.“We have had wonderful nominees from the JNCs of people who were nurses, police officers, fireman, ranchers, scientists, business people.. . . different careers people have had before they went to law school,” Rodriguez said. “They may have only been practicing for 10 years, but maybe they had another 10 years in nonlegal experience before that makes for a very well-rounded judge.”Rodriguez said ethical considerations also take center stage in the governor’s review of applicants.“If anything smells like somebody is unethical, they are going to get a very thorough scrubbing, and if we hear negatives coming back at any level, that person goes to the bottom of the pile, as long as there is evidence to back it up,” Rodriguez said, adding that JNC commissioners also must take into consideration the source of any negative information and be attuned to why someone may be reporting negative information. “You must separate truth from rumor and innuendo.”Coxe said if the JNCs are doing their job, the General Counsel’s Office “should not have to be investigating background at all, as you should have already had every base covered and told the governor you cannot get embarrassed by appointing any one of these people.”last_img read more