Why Florida voters will decide whether to keep supreme court justices in the November election

Several justices, appellate judges up for merit retention

Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida voters will find more judges on the ballot when they go to vote in November.

Among the candidates for governor, congress and maybe school board, voters will find several entries asking if supreme court justices or appeals court judges should be retained.

[RESULTS 2022: VOTER GUIDE: What you need to know for the 2022 Florida November Election | Want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know ]

Five Florida Supreme Court justices and more than two dozen Florida appeals court judges are up for merit retention this election.

That means voters are deciding whether a judge gets to stay a judge. But they don’t get to decide who will replace them.

Who are these judges?

Florida has four levels of courts:

  • County Court – These judges hear criminal misdemeanor cases and small claims civil cases (less than $50,000 starting Jan. 2023).
  • Circuit Court – These judges hear felony cases, domestic relations, juvenile cases, probate issues and larger civil cases. Circuit judges are broken up by region. There are 20 circuits for the 67 counties.
  • District Courts of Appeal – These judges review the decisions in county and circuit courts to determine If they follow the Florida Constitutional. These judges are also broken up by five regions. You will only vote on the appellate judges in your region.
  • Florida Supreme Court – Reviews the decisions of the appeals courts and have the final say on the matter.

Voters vote for county and circuit court judges – you did that in August.

Appellate and supreme court judges are nominated by a judicial nominating commission, a body of nine people all appointed by the governor. There is a judicial nominating commission for the Florida Supreme Court, for each of the five appellate courts, and one for each of the 20 circuit courts.

That council provides the governor with a list of judicial candidates for a position, and the governor chooses a judicial appointment from that list.

So who the governor is and what their beliefs are can play a large role in shaping the Florida judiciary. Gov. Ron DeSantis, for instance, has more conservative beliefs, and he is on record as saying he supports more conservative judges.

Why do voters decide if an appointed judge can stay on the bench?

Voters approved constitutional amendments in the 1970s that required a merit retention system. Before then all judges were approved in partisan elections, but there were concerns about abuses.

It is actually illegal in Florida for a candidate to use a party affiliation in connection with a judicial election. Court staff can also not tell voters if any judges or justices are registered with a political party.

When do the judges go up for a merit retention vote?

After being appointed to a court, a judge or justice faces a merit retention vote in the next election that appears more than one year after their appointment.

If they are retained in that first election, they then serve six-year terms, going up for retention again at the end of each of those six years.

On the election ballot, voters will see a question for each justice or judge up for retention. For instance:

“Shall Justice Charles T. Canady of the Supreme Court be retained in office?”

And voters will decide “Yes” or “No.”

All supreme court justices are required to retire by age 75.

What happens if a justice or a judge is not retained by the voters?

If the voters decide not to retain a justice or judge, that judge serves out the end of their term (early January).

Then the judicial nominating commission will send another list of names to the governor to choose a new judge or justice to replace them.

However, the Florida Bar Association says no judge or justice has ever lost a retention vote.

How do I research a judge or justice to see if I want them retained?

Judges in Florida are not supposed to use a political party affiliation in their campaign for a position, and they also are not supposed to state their positions on an issue because they might find themselves ruling on it in a future case.

However, there are guides to help you make a decision on a judge or justice.

The Florida Bar’s voter guide has biographies on all the supreme court justices and district court of appeal judges.

The Florida Bar, which governs lawyers in the state, also held a merit retention poll before the election that showed what attorneys thought of the judges.

The Florida Bar has profile pieces on the justices as well:

You can also go to the League of Women Voters’ Vote411.org site and look up the judges that will be on your ballot and see a longer biography.

One thing to pay attention to is what organizations they have worked for or belong to. The groups a judge is part of can give you some idea of their political ideology.

Many of the current Florida Supreme Court justices, for instance, are members of the Federalist Society. That’s a conservative group.

About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.