Merit Selection for Trial Judges: Opportunity Lost, or Lesson Learned?

Many proposals have been considered to improve the Florida judiciary. These have included proposals for term limits for judges, as well as changes to the selection and retention methods for trial court judges. But identifying the optimal method of judicial selection to obtain the highest quality occupants for judicial office has always been elusive. Benchmarks to identify the characteristics required to be a “good” judge involve a degree of subjectivity that is difficult to measure and, to the extent that they can be quantitatively evaluated, have their own series of limitations.

Consistent with the method of judicial selection historically employed by the states, Florida has a long history of electing its trial court judges. In 1998 Florida adopted the “merit selection” local option in both counties and judicial circuits. The question considered by this paper is whether the preference for one method over another (election v. selection and retention) has ideological undertones, and what other factors may influence the adoption of a selection method, including the role of the judiciary in the debate, as well as what issues must be addressed if merit selection should ever be presented to Florida voters again in the future. From this, the future viability of implementing a merit selection process for trial judges in Florida can be considered.