From health care and community safety to schools and the economy, and just plain fairness in our courts, Florida’s judges make decisions every day that affect our lives. Yet for most Floridians, the judiciary is the least understood branch of government.
In the primary election on Aug. 26, Florida voters will have the opportunity to cast their vote for circuit judges and county court candidates. Floridians should not take these elections lightly.
Judicial elections give voters an important voice in deciding who protects their best interests in the legal system. Yet typically, more than 60 percent of voters do not mark their ballots and choose their judges. Often, they neglect to vote for judges because they’re not familiar with the candidates or the criteria for determining who is best qualified.
In fact, only 13 percent of Americans said that they knew enough about the issues to vote in a judicial election, according to a recent national survey. And these statistics reflect the fundamental lack of information Florida voters have in order to make a choice for their respective judges.
The consequence: Florida is in dire need of good judges who will fairly apply and uphold the law. Florida is rated as the No. 1 “judicial hellhole” in the country, according to the American Tort Reform Association, and our state has recently been named worst in the nation for legal fairness by the Pacific Research Institute. Frivolous lawsuits clog our courts, delaying justice for those with legitimate claims. The estimated cost of lawsuit abuse is $825 per Floridian in increased costs of products and services.
Over the years, baseless lawsuits have wrongfully stripped millions of dollars from individuals and businesses. For example, a Florida jury once ordered Alamo Rent-A-Car to pay $5.2 million to the family of a slain tourist. The family blamed the rental-car company for failing to warn the victim about a high-crime area near Miami — yet the rental-car company was across the state, in Tampa, more than 280 miles from Miami. Although the tourist’s death was undeniably tragic, it seems obvious that Alamo should not have been liable to pay for another person’s criminal act, which resulted in its customer’s terrible misfortune.
Judges play a key role in making sure baseless lawsuits are thrown out of court, and ensuring that all parties are treated fairly under the law. A judge can provide protection for those who have been harmed and dispose of the frivolous lawsuits that clog our courts. This is why it’s so important to learn about your judicial candidates and make an informed decision on Aug. 26.
Unfortunately, Florida lacks a good resource for citizens to research the judicial candidates. As a state, we lack a nonbiased information source with details about the backgrounds of candidates for judge. When all we know about the candidates is what we can learn on a yard sign or a brochure that came in the mail, it is no wonder that Floridians so frequently forgo voting for their judges. I hope that in the future it becomes easier for Floridians to acquire the information they need to make an informed choice in the voting booth.
My fellow Floridians, take it upon yourselves to ask friends and neighbors, research information online, and ask your judicial candidates about their views. Find out for yourself whom you can trust to make impartial decisions, based on fair consideration of the facts and the law. Find out who will refuse to bow to political or economic pressure when rendering verdicts and rulings.
On Aug. 26, make an informed decision and make your vote count. Don’t let someone else pick your judges.
Carlos Muhletaler is executive director of Florida Stop Lawsuit Abuse in Boca Raton.