Florida Supreme Court justices discuss importance of independent judiciary
By Felicia Holloman (3L)
Marbury v. Madison. Brown v. Board of Education. These are some of the most well-known and influential cases in history, but also some of the most unpopular or controversial during the time of the rulings. The rulings may not have been possible without an independent judicial branch — one free of political bias and societal whims.
Florida Supreme Court Justices Barbara J. Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy A. Quince, and Jorge Labarga spoke candidly at UF Law Oct. 18 about the importance of judicial independence and the challenge to maintain an unbiased court system. The justices arrived to a lively Martin H. Levin Advocacy Center courtroom packed with students, faculty and staff.
Dean Emeritus Jon Mills gave opening remarks and said “We take for granted what the Constitution did when it created an independent judiciary.”
Mills noted that Florida’s judicial system was not always independent of politics. Prior to the 1970s, judges ran for election.
Lewis remembers the time of judicial elections and discussed discouraging experiences as a young lawyer campaigning for Shelby Highsmith for Florida Supreme Court justice.
“(The experience) made me wonder if I had selected the right profession,” Lewis said. “The state was in an awful mess.”
It was not until 1972 that Florida judicial elections became non-partisan. According to Pariente, non-partisan elections reflect the belief that judges should not “fear that their livelihood or tenure” would be in jeopardy due to an unpopular ruling.
Labarga noted the backlash for his ruling as a circuit court judge in Bush v. Gore.
“I followed the rule of law. Some people cannot accept that,” Labarga said, who then joked that he was glad to have been four years away from an election at the time of the ruling.
Judicial independence brings stability to courts. According to Quince, stability means citizens will know what to expect from their court experience.
“Win or lose, you will know you are coming before a judge that is fair and impartial,” Quince said.
The discussion comes ahead of the Nov. 6 election on whether to retain Pariente, Quince, and Lewis. The Florida Republican Party recently announced that it opposes retention of the justices, and conservative groups are campaigning against them.
Voters decide every six years whether to retain Florida Supreme Court justices.
Pariente expressed concern over the increasing politicization of judicial elections. “We now have super PACs, many outside the state, trying to impact elections.”
“There is a conscious, very dedicated attempt to involve partisan politics in the judiciary,” agreed Justice Lewis.
However, Justice Pariente hopes that citizens will not allow the judiciary “to be bought” in the coming election.
The panel was moderated by Carl Schwait, an adjunct professor of law, a member of The Florida Bar Board of Governors, and a senior partner at Dell Graham, P.A. The Gerald T. Bennett Inn of Court and The Florida Bar Law Student Division sponsored the event.