frank-scruggs_web.jpgFORT LAUDERDALE —Florida’s Judicial Nominating Commissions (JNCs), which recommends candidates for gubernatorial appointment of judges, will have 78 vacancies and filling them will be a key test of the willingness of Gov. Rick Scott and the legal profession to add more minorities to the bench.

That point is stressed by a task force appointed by the Florida Bar Association’s first black president, Eugene Pettis, to look into the matter.

The “President’s Special Task Force to Study Enhancement of Diversity in the Judiciary and on the JNCs” recently wrapped up a series of meetings, coming up with 10 recommendations to the Bar’s Board of Governors.

“Diversity and meritocracy are twins. Together, they help achieve public confidence and preserve the legitimacy of the judicial system,” the task force says in its report.

The panel was headed by attorney Frank Scruggs, who was taking his second swing at moving the state toward a more diverse judiciary.

The report also calls for the appointment of a “diversity officer” as one of the steps to realize that goal. That person would lead an effort to review “the processes used by JNCs in identifying, recruiting and evaluating nominees” and examine “whether JNC processes and procedures impede the recruitment, evaluation and nomination of candidates that are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, color, national origin, sexual orientation, physical disabilities or status as a protected veteran under federal law.”

Despite the Bar’s heightened efforts to promote that diversity going back at least a decade, Pettis recently complained that the numbers are “trending down.”

The Bar has said that there are only 26 blacks among the state’s 594 circuit court judges, 32 among 319 county judges and six among the 61 district courts of appeal judges.

Blacks comprise 16 percent of Florida’s population.

Pettis 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.

Pettis and the Bar’s Board of Governors recently succeeded in recruiting dozens of black and other minority lawyers to apply to become its nominees for gubernatorial appointments to the JNCs. Their names are now before Scott for consideration.

Under the state constitution, lawyers get to the bench through general elections and gubernatorial appointments. The governor makes appointments, with input from the Bar, when vacancies arise.

Of the projected 78 vacancies, the governor can directly appoint 26 JNC members; by law, he must pick the remainder from among nominees submitted by the Bar. The task force is urging Scott not to reject any more Bar nominees as he has done 18 times. No previous governor rejected any entire slate of JNC nominees from the Bar.

Pettis has acknowledged that the Bar needs to persist in its efforts to attract minority applicants for JNC appointments. His task force is urging the Bar to keep developing lists of diverse applicants. It also recommends that Scott “appoint diverse lawyers” to fill JNC and judicial vacancies as they arise.

The Bar, the report says, should “Persist in efforts to educate Floridians regarding the importance of a fair, impartial, and independent judiciary that reflects the diversity of the state’s population and that is selected through processes that are transparent and insulated from political considerations that exceed legitimate gubernatorial consideration of the judicial philosophies and temperaments of prospective judicial appointees.”

Besides Fort Lauderdale-based Scruggs, other members of the task force were Cynthia G. Angelos of Port Saint Lucie, Robert A. Butterworth Jr. of Fort Lauderdale, Cassandra Larkin Denmark of Bartow, Linda Bond Edwards of Tallahassee, Judge Hubert L. Grimes of Deland, Paul C. Huck Jr. of Miami, Corali Lopez-Castro of Miami, William R. Scherer of Fort Lauderdale, William J. Schifino of Tampa and Robert C.L. Vaughan of Fort Lauderdale.

Scruggs, a partner in the law firm Berger Singerman, headed the Florida Supreme Court Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission in 1990-92.

More recently, in 2004, the Bar tackled racial disparity in a symposium which produced a “Diversity in the Legal Profession Report.” That report also emphasized a shortage of minorities in the judiciary and called for diversity of the judiciary by this year.

It was also the focus of the Bar in 2010  when the profession committed itself “to the enhancement of diversity within the Bar, the legal profession, legal education and in the justice system and affirms its commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment with equal access and equal opportunity for all.”