By Sarah Lewerenz, Attorney at Law, Charlotte Dems writer
Judges and those who appoint them like to claim that judges, as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said at his confirmation hearing, just “call balls and strikes” with no personal biases when ruling on the law.
As someone who practiced law in Minnesota for 37 years, I am here to tell you nothing could be further from the truth. My first job out of law school was clerking for the District Court. One day, a judge appeared in my office, handed me a file, and said: “Find me a reason to rule for the little grocery store over the big bank.” I haven’t faced a judge or arbitrator since then that was quite so open about their biases, but if you know where to look, you can find it.
For most of my career, I worked for labor unions. When a union alleges the employer has violated the union contract, most often those cases are decided by an arbitrator who serves as the judge. Unlike a judge, arbitrators are chosen by the parties: the union and the employer. So, union lawyers talk to each other about what they think about specific arbitrators. Often that includes a discussion of whether particular arbitrators “get it.” By that, the union lawyers mean, do the arbitrators understand employers sometimes intentionally treat employees badly. Unfortunately, many arbitrators don’t get that and decide cases accordingly no matter what the evidence shows. You can find that same type of bias among judges. For example, there are judges who don’t believe racism or sexual harassment are major problems and rule from that bias. And, presidents and governors appoint judges who share their biases. President Trump, for example, seeks the assistance of the very conservative Federalist Society when he appoints judges.
Florida has a “merit retention” election system for its justices and judges who are initially appointed by the governor from lists of potential nominees from Judicial Nominating Commissions. Those commissions are appointed by the governor and the Florida Bar. Currently, the five of the nine members of the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission appointed by DeSantis are members of the conservative Federalist Society. After a justice or judge is appointed, they face the public in the next election, with the public voting yes or no on whether to retain them on the bench. They then face that same vote every six years.
If you live in Charlotte County, you will be voting to retain or not, one Supreme Court Justice and four Second District Appellate Judges. It is hard to find information on specific justices or judges, but here is what I’ve ferreted out.
Carlos Muniz is the Supreme Court Justice on the ballot. Muniz was appointed by DeSantis. Prior to his appointment he was Chief of Staff to former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who defended Trump at his impeachment trial, and was General Counsel to the ultra-conservative Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. He was also on Trump’s list of potential U.S. Supreme Court appointees. He voted against putting a ban on assault rifles on the Florida ballot and for requiring Florida felons to pay their fines before they can vote. Englewood Invisible recommends a “NO” vote. Only 71% of lawyers voting in the Florida Bar poll (And 63% of lawyers with “considerable” knowledge of him) recommended retaining Muniz, the lowest number since 1980.
Judge Drew Atkinson of the Second Court of Appeals is also on the ballot. He was appointed by Governor Rick Scott and is a conservative Federalist Society member. Sixty-nine percent of lawyers in the Florida Bar poll with “considerable” knowledge of Atkinson supported retaining him.
Judge Morris Silberman of the Second Court of Appeals was appointed to the bench by Jeb Bush in 2001. Ninety-two percent of the Florida Bar with “considerable” knowledge of him recommended he be retained. The liberal Daily Kos writes that he is a “highly respected and experienced jurist who is active, engaged, and community-oriented.”
Judge Daniel Sleet was appointed to the Second Court of Appeals by Governor Scott. In private practice, he represented insurance companies against individuals involved in accidents. Judge Sleet also joined in a ruling on Florida’s new law requiring parental consent for minors seeking an abortion. That ruling refused a 14-year-old, who did not live with her parents and alleged fear of them, a judicial waiver of the parental consent requirement. Sleet also sentenced a 15-year-old to 30 years in prison for four armed robberies, after the Florida Supreme Court overturned the life sentence Sleet initially imposed. Eighty-six percent of the Florida Bar with considerable knowledge of the judge supported retaining him.
Judge Andrea Teeves Smith was appointed to the Second Court of Appeals by DeSantis. While in private practice, she served as General Counsel and a member of the Board of Directors of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce. Eighty percent of the Florida Bar with considerable knowledge of her voted for retaining her.
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