FORT LAUDERDALE — If you have ever wondered why there are so few black judges at any level of the judiciary across the state, the statistics indicate you have every right to do so. And you are in some powerful company.
The Florida Bar Association says there are only 26 blacks and 58 Hispanics among the state’s 594 circuit court judges. Of the 319 county court judges, only 32 are blacks and 26 are Hispanics. Also, only six blacks are currently among the 61 judges on the five district courts of appeal, along with only two Hispanics.
Such statistics have led Eugene Pettis, the Florida Bar’s first black leader, to establish the President’s Task Force to Study the Enhancement of Diversity on the Bench and Judicial Nominating Commissions.
The task force has met a few times and will hold another session at month-end, aiming to hand in its report in late May, the panel’s chairman, Frank P. Scruggs II, said.
Scruggs, a Fort Lauderdale resident and partner in the law firm Berger Singerman, is a widely respected attorney who headed a landmark study in 1990-92 for the State Supreme Court on racial and ethnic bias in the judicial system. The commission’s work produced legislation dealing with matters such as the judicial code of conduct, as well as juvenile justice.
Some critics have linked the lack of racial diversity among judges in part to the very small number of minorities on the Judicial Nominating Commissions (JNC) which recommends candidates for judgeships to the governor when new seats are created or there is a vacancy.
The governor appoints five members of each JNC and picks four members from nominees submitted by the Bar; the appointments are for four years.
The Florida Bar News, which reported the statistics, said the number of blacks on those commissions has dropped from nearly 25 percent to four percent and to less than 10 percent for Hispanics.
“I am hopeful that this group will additionally focus on some solutions to these concerning trends so that the Bar and the Governor’s Office may use them to facilitate and accomplish our common goal of making sure our judiciary is
reflective of our community,” Pettis said in making the announcement.
Pettis’ push to diversify the JNCs is already producing results. He told The Florida Bar News that, among 679 applicants for JNC spots, some 45 percent are minorities.
By contrast, the 188 applicants as of late January included no black men, five black women and 30 to 35 Hispanics.
Besides Scruggs, the other members of the task force are Cynthia G. Angelos of Port St. Lucie, Robert A. Butterworth Jr. of Jacksonville, Cassandra Larkin Denmark of Bartow, Linda Bond Edwards of Tallahassee, Judge Hubert L. Grimes of Deland, Paul C. Huck Jr. of Miami, William R. Scherer of Fort Lauderdale, William J. Schifino of Tampa and Robert Vaughn of Fort Lauderdale. Meanwhile, the Bar’s Young Lawyers Division is also pushing for greater diversity in the judiciary. The group will hold three symposiums on the topic on May 9 simultaneously at the law colleges of Florida
International University, Florida A&M University and Florida State University.
“Diversity is a topic that is often overlooked, as it does not affect all people all of the time,” said the group’s chairwoman Sorraya Solanges.
“And it is not just race, ethnicity or gender; it is LGBT, it is physical disabilities, it is even simply being a young lawyer.”
The Bar’s diversity task force meeting will be held at 9:30 a.m., Wednesday, April 30, at Berger Silverman, 1450 Brickell Ave., 19th Floor, and is open to the public. For more information, call Vicki S. Brand at 850-561-5758.