Monday, March 3, 2014

Empowering The Electorate In Judicial Elections

By Susan Johnson-Velez

It seems like at most professional events I attend these days, I run into a friend or colleague who is campaigning for a judicial seat. As attorneys, most of us know what qualities we look for in a judge. And as active members of the local legal community, we oftentimes know the people who are running for these seats. So when election season is upon us, our non-attorney friends and neighbors tend to call on us for advice on who should get their vote.

The question is an honest one, and it may be tempting to just recommend the candidate you know the best. However, I encourage you to turn this question into a teaching moment. Although the executive and legislative branches of government tend to grab the spotlight when it comes to elections, the judiciary is just as important. (I know I’m preaching to the choir here.) Yet, voters more often skip over those sections of the ballot or just vote for whatever name they recognize. 

We have the opportunity to change that. The Florida Bar has put together a valuable program called Benchmarks: Raising the Bar on Civics Education. The program provides attorneys with educational materials they can easily present to community groups such as PTAs, homeowners associations, and church groups. The topics vary, but all focus on increasing knowledge on the fundamentals of government and the courts. One particular presentation even teaches voters “How to Judge Judicial Candidates.”

The Benchmarks presentations include PowerPoints and activities to help you engage your audience and make the lessons fun. Plus, attorneys can earn 1 CLE ethics credit per presentation, with a maximum of 3 credits per period.

Beyond the judicial elections, the Benchmarks program also offers presentations on who has the right to vote, what the laws actually mean, how to amend the state constitution, and whether average Americans could pass the U.S. citizenship test. (I challenge you to try to answer some of those questions.)

In addition to the resources provided by Benchmarks, the Hillsborough County Bar Association is also making an effort to educate voters this year. Later in the spring, the HCBA will conduct a judicial preference poll of attorneys in Hillsborough County to gather their thoughts on candidates.

The results will be released to the public and the media, with the goal of helping voters make informed decisions at the polls. So feel free to share those results, too, when your neighbor asks for your opinion.

We are so fortunate to live in a country where every vote counts. I hope that this election season, you empower those around you to weigh the facts and render an educated verdict.