Judges are either appointed or elected, depending on court


By Layne Smith 

Special to the Outlook

Q. Judge Smith, how did you become a judge, and what do you like the most about your job? Kendra

A. Kendra let’s cover how people become judges and then focus on my job.

This is a timely question because sometime between May 20 and June 22, Gov. Ron DeSantis will appoint a new Leon County Judge to fill the vacancy created by Judge Steve Everett’s promotion to the circuit bench.

Federal judges are nominated by the President, confirmed by the United States Senate, and appointed for life. Federal judges can choose to retire, but no one can force them out if they’re competent and well behaved.

Lifetime appointments insulate federal judges from the politics of the day. They can follow the rule of law, even when doing so is unpopular, without having to worry about losing their jobs. This check and balance protects the judicial branch from rank politics and the tyranny of the mob. A downside to lifetime appointments is that the people must endure poor performers for a long time.

In comparison, state trial judges obtain their offices by appointment or election, and state appellate judges obtain their offices by appointment only. State court appointments follow a two-step process to fill open seats arising from an incumbent’s promotion, retirement, death, or removal from office.

A “judicial nominating committee” exists for each state court. Open seats are publicly noticed, and all eligible lawyers are invited to apply. After the judicial nominating committee vets and interviews applicants, it refers three to six of their names to the governor for consideration. The governor appoints new judges from the “short-lists” he receives from judicial nominating committees.

State judges appointed to fill open seats must stand for election or retention. The trial judges serving on the circuit and county benches face contested elections against other candidates. The appellate judges serving on the district courts of appeal and the supreme court face yes/no retention elections. All state judges are elected or retained to serve 6-year terms.

Unlike federal judges, state judges have a mandatory retirement age, and effective July 1, 2019, they must retire by their 75th birthdays. State court judges who misbehave can be impeached by the Florida Senate, removed from office by the Supreme Court, or voted out of office by the people.

Electing or retaining state judges allows the people to choose who will serve them in these positions. A downside to electing judges is that those facing close elections may be tempted succumb to political pressures rather than following the rule of law. Thus, integrity matters.

I became a county judge by appointment and the people of Leon County elected me to serve a six-year term. The thing I enjoy most is having daily contact with regular people and helping them resolve their cases. I love my job and am grateful for the opportunity to serve you.

J. Layne Smith is a Leon County Judge who speaks and writes about civics, the law and the administration of justice. Email your questions to askjudgesmith@gmail.com and visit askjudgesmith.com. 850.222.8440/850.681.0990