Share of black judges drops

President Johnson speaks to a television camera at the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

By Murphy Stidham |
Since taking office in January 2011, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has appointed a lower percentage of black judges than his predecessors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist.

Crist, who served one term, appointed 180 judges, including 15 blacks or 8.3 percent.

Bush, who served two terms, appointed 413 judges, including 41 African-Americans, or 9.9 percent.

Scott, now serving his second term, had appointed 158 judges as of September 2014. Just nine were blacks, or 5.7 percent, according to the governor’s office.

Some critics say the lack of diversity in the judicial system contributes to negative attitudes toward law enforcement.

An overwhelming majority of African- Americans don’t believe the justice system treats them fairly, a Sept. 22 poll says.

The PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll says non-white Americans are pessimistic about the future of race relations.

Some activists say boosting the number of non-whites in the judicial system would improve race relations.


Eugene Pettis

In 2014, The Florida Bar’s President, Eugene Pettis, reached out to both Scott and members of The Florida Bar to start a task force to try to put more black members on the Judicial Nominating Commission. Pettis’ goal was to press Scott to appoint diverse lawyers to fill the number of vacancies on the JNC. The more recruits of diverse appointees the governor has, the more the chances he has of nominating black judges.

The Task Force to Study Enhancement of Diversity in the Judiciary and on the JNCs was born. Eleven people of different ethnic backgrounds are serving on the task force.

Pettis did not respond to an interview request. In a statement issued by the Florida Bar, he said, “It is significant that 50 years ago in St. Augustine, events related to injustices on the streets and in the court were pivotal in the breakthrough for enactment of the Civil Rights Act. He was referring to the Civil Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964.

President Johnson speaks to a television camera at the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

President Johnson speaks to a television camera at the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

According to the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, the House of Representatives passed the Civil Rights Bill on February 10, 1964, and a majority of senators declared they supported it. A group of senators from Southern states began a filibuster, a non­-stop speech preventing any action on any bill from taking place. Senate rules require a two-thirds vote to halt a filibuster. Not enough senators were willing to stop it. Demonstrations in St. Augustine, Florida, helped secure the needed votes to stop the filibuster and the Civil Rights Bill was passed.

By law, the governor chooses all nine members of the each of state’s 26 JNCs, says Deborah Wagner, past chairman of the Florida State Commission on Women and former executive director of Florida Supreme Court Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission.

Under Scott, fewer African-Americans sit on those JNCs than they did 25 years ago. The task force is trying to increase the numbers because the Florida African-American population makes up more than 16 percent of the citizenry.

eborah Wagner, past chair of the Florida State Commission on Women and former executive director of Florida Supreme Court Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission.

Deborah Wagner

In 1989, a mere 4 percent of Florida judges were black, and the four out of five appellate courts had no black or Hispanic judges. At the time, Chief Justice Raymond Ehrlich created the Florida Supreme Court’s Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission to examine the under-representation of minorities among judges and court personnel.

In 2000, then-Gov. Bush appointed James E.C. Perry to the 18th Judicial Circuit Court, making him the first African-American presiding over that court. In 2009, then-Gov. Crist appointed him to the Florida Supreme Court. Such historic appointments are rarity today, Wagner says (listen to an excerpt of her interview).

“We are living in a state that is incredibly racially and culturally diverse in terms of our population. And our strength as a state is very much dependent upon that diversity,” she says. “When you look at our judicial system, you see that pretty much all levels of the judicial system from the composition of judges, of juries and people who work for the court system, we are far less diverse than our population or justice requires.”

Wagner says this is important because until the court system has a broad range in diversity, creating a broad range of experience on the bench, it cannot have fairness and equality in its decisions. She says the diversity of the bench is so important for both the reality of justice and the perception of justice in Florida.

The number of black members on the JNC has dropped under Scott’s administration by nearly half and currently stands at less than 4 percent, according to the task force. In response to critics who say the JNC should acquire a more diverse pallet of nominees, the JNC says: “It is the job of the JNC to ‘recruit’ applicants.”

While the task force says diversity brings a broader range of human experience to the bench, JNC says the quality and fairness of judicial decision-making is already in practice.

According to the JNC, a court system that is reflective of the diversity in our state does not need to be fine-tuned. “An applicant’s race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, etc. should have no impact in determining whether or not he or she is qualified for nomination to a judicial position.” When qualified minorities apply, their names are “usually forwarded to the Governor for consideration.”

The task force questioned the JNC about the selection of their members. Most said partisan politics are more important than merit in determining who is selected.

Wagner says she thinks diversity matters a great deal. Governors who do not look at diversity and simply judge the applicants by their competence are “ignoring the absolute importance to both the reality and perception of justice by having a diverse JNC.”

She says a governor is duty bound to take racial and ethnic diversity into account when he or she is appointing JNC members or judges.

“We have enormously competent people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and there is no reason why Gov. Scott or any governor cannot find plenty of all racial types who are enormously competent and would do a great job in the JNC or even more importantly, as judges,” says Wagner.

The task force says Scott has rejected entire slates of nominees from the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar for appointment to the JNCs on 18 occasions. No prior governor of Florida has rejected a slate of JNC members presented by The Florida Bar.

The September survey shows that many Americans, regardless of race, agree that race relations have worsened nationally in the past year. Opinions on equality, however, were split between white and black respondents.

In cases involving racially-charged incidents like the Jordan Davis shooting in Jacksonville Fla., where a white man shot an unarmed black man, diversity advocates say it is important to have neutral judges.

This PBS NewsHour/ Marist Poll looked at many issues, including whether both blacks and whites have equal opportunities in situations like the workplace, pay, or receiving a quality education. For example, when applying for a job, 52 percent of whites say they feel the opportunity is equal among whites and blacks, 76 percent of African- Americans say it is not.

According to the poll, issues such as equal justice come into play as well.

Respondents were asked, “Do you feel the opportunity for fair treatment by police is equal for African-Americans and whites?” Credit: Camila Domonoske/NPR,.

Respondents were asked, “Do you feel the opportunity for fair treatment by police is equal for African-Americans and whites?” Credit: Camila Domonoske/NPR,.

Exactly half of whites said African-Americans and Caucasians do have equal opportunities in receiving justice under the law; 46 percent disagreed. Only 11 percent of African-Americans agreed that justice is equal among races, while an overwhelming majority of 87 percent of blacks said it was not.

Wagner says the poll directly supports exactly why diversity among the decision makers in the judicial system makes so much of a difference.

“I am not surprised at all in a poll that says more whites than blacks have confidence in the ability of decision makers to meet our appropriate, fair justice. Whether those decision makers are employers or judges sitting in the civil or criminal courts of Florida,” says Wagner.

She says this is because “when you have got decision makers who are not reflecting the demographic diversity of the state, then you have decision makers who, one, may not have the life experience that a diverse group of decision makers would bring to the bench and two, you’ve got the perception that the justice weeded out from the bench is lacking.”

According to the poll, nearly two-thirds of African Americans mostly agree with “Black Lives Matter.” They believe it is a movement not just a slogan, focuses attention on real issues of discrimination and is a non-violent civil rights campaign. In contrast, 42 percent of whites are either unsure or do not have an opinion about “Black Lives Matter.”

The poll says, “A plurality of whites thinks it is a movement, but nearly six in 10 believe that it distracts attention from the real issues of discrimination, and they divide over whether it advocates violence or is a non-violent civil rights campaign.”

The Black Lives Matter movement highlights such cases as the shooting of Jordan Davis, an African-American killed by a white man named Michael Dunn in 2012. The Circuit Court Judge who sat on that case was Russell Healey, a white male appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in April 2014.

Jordan Davis, left, and his killer, Michael Dunn.

Jordan Davis, left, and his killer, Michael Dunn.

Wagner says, “As we see by the Black Lives Matter movement and as we see everyday when we open the papers and see another account of a black man being profiled and, too often, brutalized if not killed by law enforcement. We know that these issues are enormously important for justice in all of its forms.”

The 1990 Florida Supreme Court’s Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission was also created to grow diversity on the JNC. Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles acted immediately and the proportion of diverse nominating members of the JNC jumped from 5 percent to 20 percent.

Now, 25 years later, the percent of African-American JNC members dropped to 4 percent under Gov. Scott’s watch.

Wagner says, “That is a huge erosion of representation of minorities on these very important bodies. He has a long way to go to get the state back to where it was.”

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