Judging the judges

The judges’ races are heating up, and chances are you have a problem. Unless you’re an attorney or a professional political operative, you’re probably not familiar with most of the candidates running for judge. How do you find out who to vote for?

Even though I stay fairly close to politics, sometimes I have no idea who to vote for in a judicial race. Yet, I never take judicial races lightly. Judges can make decisions that profoundly affect every aspect of your life, and can hurt your business. They can even remove you from the living, rob you of your freedom or separate you from your child. That kind of power means voters must be careful indeed when we select these arbiters of justice.

Choosing the right judicial candidate requires determining not how keenly one wants the job, or how popular he or she is with other judges and attorneys. What should voters and business people of all types look for in evaluating and selecting a judge? Socrates can help. He suggested we should look for “four things that belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly and decide impartially.”

My list includes: professional competence and experience, impartiality and lack of bias, even temperament and integrity. Further, I want judges who are committed to diligence and judicial efficiency, who move cases along proficiently, who do not entertain frivolous motions, and who do not tolerate indecorous or unethical behavior by attorneys.

Finally, I want a candidate who reflects my view of a restrained judiciary that refuses to engage in making law but understands that its role is to interpret law. Judges should respect precedent and not legislate from the bench. They should exercise judicial restraint and avoid the label of “activist” judge. We don’t need judges who fall prey to the whims of their personal political ideologies.

Yet it’s tough to learn about the biases of judicial candidates. Most information about sitting judges is anecdotal, and comes from attorneys who practice before them. So, it’s hard to determine if judges understand that a community’s reputation for having a judicially healthy business climate is essential for its economic well-being. Businesses don’t want to relocate to judicial hellholes, and it’s worth noting here that the American Tort Reform Association has rated South Florida among the top four judicial hellholes in the United States in each of the last seven years.

Some judges refuse to attend interviews and answer questions about their guiding principles and beliefs, on the basis that it’s improper for them to comment on such matters. So be it, but that leaves voters in the dark.

Business owners and managers are concerned about whether the judicial candidate brings to the bench a preconceived view that the consumer or the plaintiff always has a case. Will this candidate tend to fall for the emotional arguments advanced by plaintiff lawyers looking for deep pockets? This is a serious concern with candidates who have been personal injury lawyers, because they often harbor an anti-institutional mindset.

Business people also want judges who appreciate the sanctity of contracts and the mutual obligations that flow from contracts to the parties. When parties ink their names to an agreement, judges should not allow them to slither out of it.

Judges may or may not like these criteria, but it’s our lives and our businesses that can get destroyed by judicial action. We have a right and a duty to protect what we have honestly built. Fair and impartial judges are an essential part of healthy communities, and we count on them to know the rules, apply the law fairly and bring a balanced hand to the bench.

John R. Smith GET AUTHOR RSS FEED

John R. Smith is chairman of BIZPAC, the Business Political Action Committee of Palm Beach County, and owner of a financial services company. He is a frequent columnist for BizPac Review.
John R. Smith

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