As of 2011, some 102,319 people were locked up in Florida state prisons. They included 49,686 black men and 2,348 black women, for a total of more than 52,000 African Americans behind bars – or about 50 percent of the inmates – although blacks comprise less than 16 percent of Floridians.
Will having more black judges reduce those numbers? Probably. It shouldn’t mean black judges would be more lenient toward black offenders. But it should mean that black judges are better equipped to weigh all circumstances of a case and make a judgment that is fair.
In any case, there has been no opportunity to test the theory that greater judicial diversity will lead to a more even-handed dispensation of justice. The Florida Bar Association says there are only 32 blacks among 319 county judges, only 26 among 594 circuit court judges and only six among 61 district courts of appeal judges.
A lawyer can become a judge through a general election but this is a rather weak approach to ensuring diversity in the judiciary. And even when blacks win, often the victory is short-lived because they are challenged the next time around by lawyers of different races who have built-in majorities in the electorate.
Another way is by appointment by the governor, through Judicial Nominating Commissions, when vacancies arise.
The particular JNC sends three names to the governor for a final selection. The catch is that the governor has control over who can be on a JNC. Prospective members are recommended by the Bar and the current governor has set a record by rejecting 18 full slates of nominees from the Bar.
Mr. Eugene Pettis, the Bar’s first black president, has noted that only three black men and five black women were among 140 applicants to the JNCs – at a time when the number of African Americans on the commissions had dropped from almost 25 percent to four percent.
This was the central issue for a task force which Mr. Pettis created, headed by Fort Lauderdale attorney Frank Scruggs. One of its strongest recommendations is a call to the governor to stop rejecting the Bar’s nominations in as cavalier a manner as he has been doing.
The task force notes that there will be 78 JNC vacancies and the governor, by law, can directly appoint 26 members but must select the rest from nominees submitted by the Bar.
With the whole legal profession, as represented by the Bar, standing behind this call, it will do well for Mr. Scott to make an effort to shed the image of a governor who has no interest in having a judiciary that reflects the composition of his state.