Living in a 24-hour news cycle can be exhausting. Especially so in an election year when we are inundated with ads for people who want to be our next senator, representative or governor. What often gets lost among the “noise” of those high-profile, partisan elections are the election of judges. Why should you be concerned with judicial elections? For a very simple reason: a judge may be the most important person you meet on one of the worst days of your life.
Your congressman can’t put you in jail, take away your children or order you to pay alimony. Neither can the governor. But think about the direct impact a judge can have on your life, or that of a friend or family member. A judge can decide during divorce how much you have to pay your former spouse and how often you get to see your children. During a criminal case, the judge makes sure your rights are protected, and if you are guilty, decides your sentence. In civil cases, the judge decides many of the merits of your case and instructs the jury on the law. In probate cases, a judge may decide how much you inherit or who gets your stuff when you die.
You owe it to yourself and your community to walk into the voting booth as an informed voter and cast an educated vote in the judicial races.
Because of limitations on judicial campaign communications, people know very little about the judges they elect. Judicial candidates cannot tell you what they think. They can’t tell you how they will rule on particular issues. They can’t say things like they are “tough on crime” or they “support law enforcement.” This is the likely reason that nearly 30 percent of those who cast ballots in the high-profile elections that appear at the top of the ballot fail to vote in the judicial contests, which usually appear at the bottom of the ballot. Judicial elections also take place during the August primaries, when there is historically lower turnout, so fewer people are voting when it comes to electing judges. This lower turnout magnifies the importance of each vote and demonstrates why it is critically important that you vote in the judicial races.
One good source of information is the Judicial Candidates’ Voluntary Self-Disclosure Statement located on the Florida Bar’s web site. You should review the candidates’ history of community service, disciplinary records and see where they rank in the judicial polls. Perhaps the best source of information about judicial candidates comes from the lawyers who appear before the incumbent judges or who practice with the lawyers seeking election. Reach out to your attorney friends and get their informed opinions on the candidates’ relevant experience and knowledge of the law, their temperament, and their ability to rule in a fair and impartial manner. These are the qualities that make a good judge.
It has been said that we get the government and the leaders that we deserve, not necessarily the best ones. This applies equally to our judges. Educate yourself before you enter the voting booth and make sure to cast a ballot that ensures we elect the people most qualified to serve as judges.
Michael J. Napoleone, Wellington
Editor’s note: Attorney Michael J. Napoleone is a shareholder at the West Palm Beach office of the Florida law firm Richman Greer. He is also a member of the Wellington Village Council.