An update on Florida’s judicial vacancy lawsuit

Last week I noted the lawsuit filed against Florida Governor Rick Scott by Jacksonville attorney David Trotti. Scott has moved to fill several seats on the state bench, which opened due to curiously timed judicial retirements. Trotti alleges that the retirements create a vacancy for such a short period that the seats should be filled by popular election.

The trial court ruled in favor of Trotti, which would have prevented the Governor from filling the seat. But the Scott Administration appealed, which automatically stayed the decision and once again enabled the Governor to appoint a new judge. Trotti convinced the trial court to vacate the stay, but Scott then convinced the appellate court to reinstate the stay.

Trotti has now appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the stay (and a Scott appointment) will eliminate the rights of citizens to vote for the judicial candidate of their choice. In his petition, he noted that several judges have times their retirements to create just enough of vacancy to permit the Governor to claim the right to fill the seat through appointment. As I noted in my earlier post, I am no fan of judicial elections, but this certainly smells like people are gaming the system.

Florida’s fight over filling a judicial vacancy

A curiously timed judicial retirement in Florida has spurred a lawsuit and a debate over whether the vacancy should be filled by the governor or the voters.

Robert Foster, a trial judge on the state’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, was expected to retire on January 7, 2019–the last day of his term. (Foster will have reached the state’s mandatory retirement age.) In April, however, Foster informed Governor Rick Scott that he will take retirement one week earlier, on December 31.

That one week makes a big difference. Normally when a Florida judge leaves on the final day of the term, his seat is filled by popular election. But the governor interpreted the December 31 retirement to be an “early” retirement, which would allow him to fill the seat by gubernatorial appointment. In early May, the Fourth Judicial Circuit’s Judicial Nominating Commission announced the vacancy and invited applications.

Continue reading “Florida’s fight over filling a judicial vacancy”

Pennsylvania Senate slips judicial reform into redistricting bill

The Pennsylvania Senate yesterday passed a significant redistricting bill that would redraw the maps both for the state legislature and the state’s representatives in Congress. Before the vote was taken, however, Senator Ryan Aument introduced an amendment that would also change the way Pennsylvanians vote for their appellate judges. The amendment calls for judges of the Commonwealth Court and Superior Court to be elected regionally rather than by statewide elections. The amendment passed, and did not seem to effect the passage of the final bill.

Sen. Aument later explained that his amendment would provide all areas of the state with representation on the appellate courts. Proponents also surmise that regional elections would increase voter turnout.


Lawsuit in Kentucky judicial race after primary winner’s sudden death

Last week, I wrote about the sudden and tragic death of Kentucky lawyer Danny Alvarez, who had won a primary election for state judge 24 hours earlier. Alvarez was set to square off against the second place winner in the fall election. After his death, the local Board of Elections ruled that the second-place finisher would be the sole candidate on the November ballot.

Now Karen Faulkner, who finished in third place by a mere seventeen votes, is challenging the decision and arguing that she should be on the ballot as well. Details here.

Sitting Alabama justices endorse candidate in upcoming partisan primary

Here is something I have never seen before. Seven sitting and former justices of the Alabama Supreme Court publicly endorsed Chief Justice Lyn Stuart in this week’s upcoming Republican primary. Stuart replaced former Chief Justice Roy Moore after he was suspended in 2016; she is now seeking a full term.

There are a number of unusual circumstances here. Stuart stepped into a difficult position after the Moore suspension, and obviously won the support of her colleagues. And her opponent, Associate Justice Tom Parker, is a close associate of Moore. It is likely good politics to place the more moderate Stuart in the partisan general election against a Democratic challenger. Parker seems to be a mini-Moore when it comes to inciting controversy.

But this is still a highly unusual move. Judges generally stay away from political endorsements or similar activity, for fear of comprising their legitimacy as nonpartisan arbiters of the law. Moreover, the the sitting justices here chose between two colleagues on the bench. That will make for an awkward summer around the courthouse. And what if the Democratic candidate wins the general election? (Unlikely in Alabama, but we know it can happen.)

Partisan elections places judges and judicial candidates in countless compromising positions. Here is another piece of evidence to that effect.

Judicial candidate’s sudden death throws election into disarray

Last Tuesday, Danny Alvarez won the primary for his judicial race in Kentucky. As the top vote-getter, Alvarez was set to square off against the second-place finisher, Tanisha Hickerson, in the fall general election. Hickerson herself secured second place by only seventeen votes over third-place finisher Karen Faulkner.

Tragically, Alvarez died suddenly on Wednesday. While his family and friends understandably grieve, the election officials were faced with an unexpected problem: what to do about the general election. Confessing that there is no recent precedent for this situation, the Secretary of State’s Office has announced that Hickerson would be the sole candidate on the ballot in November. Given how close Hickerson and Faulkner were in the primary, it seems likely that Faulkner will ask for a re-canvassing of the votes already cast. But even if the re-canvassing does not change the result, one can only imagine that Hickerson did not want to win a judgeship in this manner.

Judge Van Pelt wins in Georgia; Justice Goodson advances in Arkansas

I previously noted the bizarre story of Georgia Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt, a twenty-year veteran of the court who was promised a “blood sport” campaign by a local kingmaker. Last night, Judge Van Pelt fought off his challenger, Melissa Hise, winning over 52% of the vote.

A couple states away, Arkansas Justice Courtney Goodson advanced to a two-way race with a local attorney to keep her seat, after a whirlwind couple of weeks in which Goodson sued an out-of-state group for broadcasting defamatory attack ads against her. That lawsuit produced a preliminary injunction against the ads in some Arkansas counties but not others, and the case is still pending.

Perhaps the cauldron of a political campaign improves one’s skill, patience, and approach to judging. But I am having trouble seeing it.