This year, the ballots of Pensacola-area voters feature retention questions on six judges: one Florida Supreme Court justice and five First District Court of Appeals judges.
Why? That’s just the way it works in Florida. In some states, judges are appointed and that’s just that. In others, judges are elected. In Florida, we elect local judges (county and circuit courts) while state judges (appellate court and the state supreme court) are appointed. However, citizens periodically get to vote whether or not those state judges can keep their jobs.
Here’s the thing: it probably doesn’t matter how you vote. All six of the judges will almost certainly keep their jobs. In the entire history of Florida judicial retention votes, no judge has ever been removed by voters from the bench.
But I’m a thorough voter, so here’s how I’m voting on the six judicial retentions:
Justice Alan Lawson: Yes
Alan Lawson was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court by Governor Rick Scott in 2016. This is his first retention vote. Prior to being appointed to the Florida Supreme Court, Lawson served for 10 years as an appellate court judge and another three as a circuit court judge.
Lawson is a conservative white justice who was appointed by the Governor to fill a vacancy left by a more liberal African-American justice, E.C. Perry. And while I would have preferred to see another person of color appointed, Lawson has impressive credentials and is broadly respected within the state legal community. In a poll earlier this year, 87 percent of Florida Bar members supported his retention.
Is he my ideal state supreme court justice? No. But he’s qualified and well-respected, and that’s good enough for me. I’m voting yes on Lawson.
Judge Harvey Jay: No
Harvey Jay was appointed by Governor Rick Scott to the First District Court of Appeals in February 2016. Previously, Jay served as a circuit court judge in the Fourth Circuit, which covers Clay, Duval, and Nassau counties in northeast Florida.
Jay sided with insurance companies over the public, ruling that property insurance data submitted to the state included “trade secrets” and couldn’t be disclosed under Florida’s public records laws. Jay also sided with Governor Scott over his veto of pay increases for state firefighters. Who votes against firefighters? That’s a hard no from me.
Judge Stephanie Ray: Yes
Stephanie Ray was appointed by Governor Rick Scott to the First District Court of Appeals in June 2011. Previously, Ray served on the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission and as a dean at the Florida State University College of Law.
I couldn’t find any rulings from Ray that I wholeheartedly objected to, and 86% of Florida Bar respondents felt she should be retained. Fine with me.
Judge Brad Thomas: No
Brad Thomas was appointed by Governor Jeb Bush to the First District Court of Appeals in 2005. Prior to his appointment, Thomas worked as the governor’s public safety policy coordinator and as a legislative staffer.
Thomas is one of two judges that lobbied lawmakers a decade ago for money to build an extravagant new 1st DCA courthouse in Tallahassee, eventually getting a $35 million bond issue inserted into a bill on the final night of the 2007 legislative session in what later was dubbed the “Taj Mahal” scandal. The other judge, Paul Hawkes, eventually resigned to avoid misconduct charges, but Thomas somehow escaped unscathed.
What’s more, we shouldn’t appoint people named “Brad” as judges. Come on. I’m voting no.
Judge Kemmerly Thomas: No
Kemmerly Thomas was appointed by Governor Rick Scott to the First District Court of Appeals in June 2016. Before that, Thomas worked as an attorney in private practice.
Last year, Thomas was criticized (rightfully so, in my opinion) for purchasing a table at a September fundraiser for “Friends of NRA,” a foundation operated by the National Rifle Association. I support the Second Amendment, but I find the NRA’s hardline, uncompromising stance on common-sense gun regulations to be pretty gross, and it’s pretty gross that Thomas attended the event. I’m a no on her.
Judge Allen Winsor: No
Allen Winsor was appointed by Governor Rick Scott to the First District Court of Appeals in February 2016. Winsor previously served as the state’s solicitor general. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump nominated Winsor for a federal judgeship.
Civil rights groups have opposed Winsor’s federal nomination, citing a number of cases where Winsor worked as an attorney to restrict voting rights, curtail voter registration drives, and decrease women’s access to reproductive health care. Winsor also defend Florida’s (since overturned) ban on same-sex marriage as well as a really weird, also now overturned law which banned Florida doctors from asking patients if they owned guns.
Winsor is also a member of the Federalist Society. He’s just too right-wing for my tastes. I’m voting no.