Around election time, I am inundated with people asking me how they should fill out their ballots for judicial races.
It can be difficult - especially since candidates are required to watch what they say. (In fact, I once moderated a forum for judicial candidates. A the end of the forum, I had barely learned a thing ... except that every candidate there had vowed to "uphold the law.")
Still, there are things you can do to be an informed voter.
Here are five tips.
1) Check out candidate surveys. This is where you can hear the candidates in their own words speak about issues related to the office they seek. Several local groups survey local candidates. The Orlando Sentinel does so here. The Orange County League of Women Voters does so here. The Seminole County League of Women Voters does so here.
2) Check out endorsements. The Sentinel's editorial board (which I am not a part of) puts a lot of time into interviewing these candidates -- and even shares the videos of many of those interviews. You can find the Sentinel's endorsements -- along with explanations of why the board endorsed each candidates -- by clicking on the "endorsed" link (and star) next to certain candidates.
3) Watch out for red flags. If a judicial candidate is boasting about his membership or allegiance to any kind of interest group -- whether its PETA or the NRA -- that should be a big, red flag. I may be a big fan of the work being done by certain groups. But I want my judges making their rulings based on the law -- not bias. And there is no good reason for a judicial candidate to be bragging about membership in a certain interest group unless he or she is trying to send a message.
4) Check out the candidates' websites. If you want to know more about Joe Blow's campaign for Osceola County judge, Google "Joe Blow for Osceola County judge." The website should come up. There, you can see more of the candidates' thoughts in their own words, check out the endorsements they are touting ... and look for any more of those red flags.
5) Check out the annual "Judicial Poll." This may be the one controversial suggestion on this list. Some judges hate this poll (particularly those who don't fare well in it). But it's another tool in your box. Basically, the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers polls lawyers -- defense attorneys and prosecutors (but mostly defense attorneys) -- about the judges in the region. They ask the lawyers to rate the judges on judicial knowledge, demeanor, freedom from bias, efficiency and more. This poll is imperfect. But many judges and court observers pay attention to it. And I think I buy what many veterans have told me through the years -- that the poll may be imperfect for the murky middle, but it's pretty good at highlighting the best and worst judges. In other words, if a judge has across-the-board marks -- either good or bad -- there's probably something to the assessments. Again, this is only for sitting judges -- those seeking re-election. If you want to check out the survey for 2013-2014, I've included a link here as well.
Now, go forth ... be informed ... and vote your heart out!