By TSITSI D. WAKHISI
Special to South Florida Times
MIAMI — In an effort to get rid of what some are calling the “eenie meenie miney moe” process of electing judges in Florida, the Miami-Dade Branch of the NAACP is advancing a plan to grade or rank sitting members of the bench.
Shirley Johnson, the branch’s second vice president, suggested the report card Monday at an NAACP-sponsored political forum at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in the South Miami-Dade community of Perrine.
“There needs to be some kind of movement, a process of some kind” that will let judges know that the community is watching,” Johnson said. “The community then should use the rankings to become better informed about their choices in the ballot booth.”
The NAACP already ranks candidates in other races, Johnson said. Given the impact that judges have in the community, it makes sense that they be included in the rankings, she added.
Branch President Adora Obi Nweze said she will consult with the NAACP’s national leadership about how to devise the grading or ranking system.
“As a result of not being informed, we get persons who don’t respect or represent our community. We have a lot of work to do as it relates to our judicial system,” Nweze said.
Having judges who are not compassionate or sensitive to the needs and culture of the community can have devastating effects, said Daisy Black, who heads the branch’s Civic Engagement and Political Action Committee. For example, she said, judges can directly determine the future of black youth in the court system.
“I don’t like to see these kids go into the court system and not come out,” said Black, who is also mayor of El Portal in northeast Miami-Dade County.
In Florida, as in most other states, judicial candidates by law face restrictions that do not apply to other candidates, including being barred from making campaign pledges or promises. Judicial candidates may not personally ask for contributions. Instead, they must set up a committee to raise funds for the campaign and garner support. On the campaign trail, judges may talk about their qualifications but not their opinions on legal or political issues.
“Running for judge is not sexy,” said Maxine Cheesman, a private practice attorney and judicial candidate for a Palm Beach circuit court seat. At a recent campaign forum, she said, judicial candidates fielded few questions from the audience, while school board candidates were bombarded with them.
“People don’t think about the judicial race,” said Cheesman, adding that voters often select candidates based on name-recognition or even gender -preference.
“They will go ‘eenie, meenie, miney moe’ at the polls. They think they will never come in front of a judge but, when they do need a judge, they may not like him but don’t realize that they voted him into office.”
At the Sweet Home forum, a retired Miami-Dade County administrator said she was recently treated with disrespect in a probate case.
“There is a lack of common respect for common citizens like me,” said Kay Sullivan, 68. “When I come into the judge’s chamber, some want to act like they are Judge Judy,” she said, referring to the television personality. “I’m coming because I am looking for justice. I didn’t come to be embarrassed and made light of.”
Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Rodney Smith said there is no excuse for rudeness in the courtroom. He added that more African-American judges are needed, including in the probate division, where there has never been an African-American judge.
“Black judges are losing their seats,” said Smith, who grew up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. “There were more blacks – twice as many – in circuit court five years ago than there are today.”
Currently there are 22 black judges serving in county court and circuit courts in South Florida: Miami-Dade with 10, Broward with seven, including Broward Assistant State Attorney Kal Le Var Evans, who recently was appointed a county circuit court judge by Gov. Rick Scott, and five in Palm Beach.
If black judges cannot be retained in office, they cannot vie for choice assignments such as probate court, which is based on seniority, Smith said.
Smith welcomes the NAACP’s intention to grade or rank sitting judges, as well as the civil rights group’s efforts to inform the community about judicial candidates. More education is needed, he said.
“I have gotten support from various groups but I need African Americans to come to the plate. When we don’t vote, we literally vote for the other candidate,” he said.
Smith in Miami-Dade and Cheesman in Palm Beach are two of three black candidates in contested judicial races in the Aug. 26 primary in South Florida. Also running is Broward County Court Judge Ian Richards.
Additionally, six black judges are running unopposed and automatically will be re-elected to a six-year term in November. In Palm Beach, they are County Court judges Reginald Corlew and Debra Moses Stephens. In Miami-Dade, they are Circuit Court judges Darryl Trawick, Jerald Bagley, Eric Hendon and Orlando Prescott.
Richards, the first black judge to be elected countywide in Broward County, in 2009, said voter disinterest in judicial elections is universal but the black community, as well as others, must press for more inclusion.
“The community has the responsibility to get proper representation on the bench,” said Richards, who is facing two challengers. Many black judges traditionally have been appointed, which gets them into the system. When their term expires, they then are able to run for office on their own, he said.
Unlike in Miami-Dade, Richards said, black judicial incumbents have been able to sustain the election challenges in Broward.
“So far, we have been blessed,” he said.