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Florida Supreme Court Allows Judicial Candidates to Campaign on Ideology

The decision bars judicial hopefuls from declaring partisan affiliation but not positions. “To describe oneself as a ‘conservative’ does not signal bias, pro or con, toward anyone or on any issue,” the court found.

The Florida Supreme Court refused to discipline a judge who described herself as a "conservative" in a recorded campaign phone call. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)
Carline Jean/TNS
The Florida Supreme Court cleared the way for judicial candidates across the state to openly declare their political ideology — as long as they don’t disclose their party affiliation.

The highest court’s decision was tucked in a ruling over how to penalize a St. Johns County judge who told potential voters in a 2022 campaign voicemail that she was a conservative. Judicial races are supposed to be nonpartisan, but the highest court ruled her statement was ethically permissible.

“To describe oneself as a ‘conservative’ does not signal bias, pro or con, toward anyone or on any issue,” the justices ruled, overriding the findings of the Judicial Qualifications and the admission of the judge facing disciplining, County Court Judge Casey L. Woolsey.

Judges have been publicly scolded for even admitting their political party registration in response to questions from the media. But Woolsey never said she was a Republican. “The statement ‘I am a conservative’ is not partisan, either inherently or, as the JQC believed, when made during an election campaign in a predominantly Republican community,” the court ruled.

“Our judicial code does not prohibit a candidate from discussing his or her philosophical beliefs,” the justices wrote, citing an earlier decision.

In South Florida, lawyers and legal experts called the ruling “bizarre” and predicted it would usher in an era of nakedly partisan judicial campaigns.

“The decision today will not only erode public confidence in the judiciary but also open the floodgates to campaign political speech-related disqualification motions,” said Anthony Alfieri, director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami School of Law.

Expect candidates to file complaints about the words their opponents use to on the campaign trail for years to come, he said. The JQC will get bogged down in “abstract, definitional debates over the meaning of political labels across the ideological spectrum,” Alfieri said.

Broward lawyer and legal blogger Bill Gelin made a similar prediction. “The JQC will be performing linguistic gymnastics as candidates test the limits of what can and cannot be said during a campaign,” said Gelin, who runs the JAABlog independent courthouse news and gossip website and was first to report on the court’s decision Thursday.

Nova Southeastern University Law School professor Bob Jarvis called the ruling “stunning,” but “predictable” given the increasingly conservative makeup of the Florida Supreme Court, which consists entirely of Republican appointees.

“We live in highly partisan times. We should not be surprised by this decision,” Jarvis said. “They are arguing that the word conservative means different things to different people. You could be a conservative and say you’re for a strong national defense, low taxes, and smaller government. That doesn’t predict judicial decisions. But ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are stand-in words” that almost always signal a candidate’s partisan preferences, he said.

Former Broward Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ceasar agreed, predicting candidates will declare their political affiliations by announcing their political philosophies and letting voters fill in the blanks.

“Even in Democratic Broward, I would not want to see that happen,” said Ceasar, who is an attorney. “In these times certain descriptions clearly transfer to certain parties. It does more than imply a political affinity, and in a judge or judicial candidate, that is unacceptable.”

Alfieri said the Supreme Court ruling “stands contrary to the language, history, structure, and policy of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct.”

©2024 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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