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New state supreme court study finds Florida, nation failing to reflect diversity of our communities

Legislation to address inequities on Florida’s Judicial Nominating Commissions, HB 161 and SB 544, never even got a hearing

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 28, 2021

Contact: Damien Filer / 850-212-1858 / Damien@ProgressFlorida.org

TALLAHASSEE -- A recent Brennan Center study on the diversity of state supreme courts found that across the country, courts are still failing to seat justices who represent the communities they serve. The study found that 22 states do not have any justice who publicly identifies as a person of color, including 11 states where people of color make up at least 20 percent of the population.

Legislation introduced this year, HB 161 by Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D-Tampa) and SB 544 by Sen. Perry Thurston (D-Ft. Lauderdale), would have removed the governor’s outsized influence over Judicial Nominating Commissions (JNCs), helping to ensure a nonpartisan, independent nomination process. These bills would also have required diversity to be taken into consideration when JNC members were chosen and for demographic data on commission members to be collected and released.

“A diverse bench is vital to achieving a fair system of justice and promoting public trust in the courts. Across the country, state supreme courts fail to reflect an increasingly diverse population,” said Alicia Bannon with the Brennan Center for Justice. Bannon explains the disparities as, “driven by many factors, including a long history of racial and gender discrimination in the United States and inequities in access to law schools and the legal bar.”

The results of the Brennan Center study reflect similar patterns seen here in Florida’s judicial branch. In fact, some of the statistics are nearly identical.

According to the Brennan Center, just 17 percent of the country’s justices are Black, Latino, Asian American, or Native American, while people of color make up almost 40 percent of the U.S. population. The Florida Bar reports that, as of 2017, only 17.5 percent of Florida’s state judges are people of color, even though the latest Census reports show that people of color represent about 49 percent of Florida’s population.

“Bills like the ones introduced this year by Sen. Thurston and Rep. Driskell were designed to limit the outsized influence governors have on our judiciary and ensure a judicial nominating process that is independent and reflective of our diverse state,” said Damien Filer on behalf of the Florida Access to Justice Project and Progress Florida.

While many factors contribute to unequal representation both nationwide and in our state, one that clearly stands out, and has the possibility for timely and substantial change, is Florida’s judicial nomination process.

The creation of Judicial Nominating Commissions was meant to ensure an independent, nonpartisan process for appointing judges. In 2001, JNCs were changed in several ways, but the most destructive change was that the governor was given the ability to reject all of the Florida Bar’s recommendations submitted for judicial openings.

With total authority over judicial nominees, Florida governors are free to appoint political allies. As a result, a 2013 Florida Bar task force survey of 1,555 lawyers found that 77 percent of respondents thought partisan politics were more important than merit in winning appointments to nominating commissions. Our system hasn’t changed since then.

As it stands, Florida is one of 12 states that has only one woman on the state supreme court, and one of eight states where there is no Black justice, despite Black residents making up at least 10 percent of the population.

As Trelvis Randolph, General Counsel for the Miami-Dade NAACP, puts it: “By passing JNC reforms we can be assured Florida’s judiciary will reflect our diverse state and be free from the undue influence of partisan politics and special-interest money — with access to justice for all.”

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