BY BUDDY NEVINS
The mood was jovial at the judicial robing ceremony Friday.
That was surprising considering the five appointed judges being robed have targets on their backs.
This year has already brought the biggest challenge to the Broward bench in decades.
Eight Broward judges have opponents. There are surely more to come.
Word is that Circuit Judge John Luzzo will be the next to draw an opponent.
The reasons for this are myriad:
THE ECONOMY MAKES THE BENCH DESIRABLE
The recession has hit lawyers in the pocket — especially younger, less established ones. They are having a tough time making a living.
A seat on the bench has regular paycheck of more than $142,000 for a circuit judge and $134,000 for a county judge. It comes with generous benefits including a huge pension, a free office, staff and no need to manage a law practice.
No wonder the bench has become more desirable in the shaky economy.
JNC PERCEIVED AS UNFAIR
The Judicial Nominating Commission has a Republican litmus test.
GOP insiders and friends of Gov. Charlie Crist get judicial appointments. Good Democrats get a pass.
It is decidedly unfair and makes a mockery of the fairness of the appointment process. (I still support the fair appointment of all judges and the merit retention election of incumbent judges.)
For instance, the JNC has been unwilling to appoint public defenders. Many of the appointed judges last week were former prosecutors.
Don’t get me wrong. The JNC has always been political.
It was even worse under Gov. Jeb Bush, when his staff would question potential appointees about their position on abortion and other social issues.
Under Gov. Lawton Chiles, the PDs Office had the major voting bloc in the JNC. It was Republicans and prosecutors who were complaining. I know because I got the calls at the Sun-Sentinel.
Because of increased awareness in recent years, the impression has been growing that in Democratic Broward, a Democratic lawyer doesn’t have a chance for an appointment.
COURTHOUSE ACTIVISM HAS INCREASED
JAABlog has changed everything, exposing hypocrisy and wrongdoing on the bench.
JAABlog has torn the mask of invulnerability off the judiciary.
Although it is largely read by courthouse insiders, it has added clout because it is followed closely by the general media and other Internet web sites, such as Browardbeat.com.
It doesn’t stop with the Internet.
The younger generation of lawyers are unwilling to kowtow to the old courthouse power structure.
Then there is Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. Don’t underestimate his influence on younger lawyers and the courthouse.
Finkelstein confronts judges openly when he believed them to be doing the wrong thing.
Finkelstein allows his assistants to challenge to judges he doesn’t like. The assistant public defenders keep their pay and get their jobs back if they lose the elections.
Try that in State Attorney Mike Satz’s office.
The judges huff and puff, but they can’t do anything to Finkelstein. With his “Help Me Howard TV fame and his personal charm, he is politically unassailable.
Does this portend a future bench which will be heavily influenced by the defense Bar? We will have to see who wins in August.
It won’t be easy to beat some of these incumbent judges, such as County Court Judge Ed Merrigan.
Merrigan’s a war hero. He’s an officer in the U. S. Army and was scheduled to go to Iraq in March. Now he will probably go later in the year.
His opponent is a young DUI lawyer.
If he ends up overseas before the end of the election, Merrigan should have no fear. He has a secret weapon — his wife Tamara Rimes Merrigan.
Married just 4 years to the judge, it is clear from her speech at the robing ceremony that Tamara is madly in love with her husband.
An attorney with Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler’s firm, she had the ability to convey those feelings in a warm, personal and at times humorous look at her husband.
The judge had known Tamara for years. She knew him as someone with lengthy legal and life experience.
She noted her husband had tried over 300 cases in 65 of the state’s 67 counties. He was also man who put his legal career on hold, volunteering to fight in Iraq because he believed it was right thing.
The judge was “a decorated combat veteran who leads soldiers into raging battles and “a man that is willing to die for something he believes in, Tamara said.
She described how her life changed after their relationship blossomed into love.
At 43, this life-long bachelor moved from a huge house he earned with successful legal practice into a tiny one that came complete with Tamara’s two daughters. From living with combat troops, he suddenly was living in “a girl’s dorm.
She found out that the judge was most happy when being a Dad. He loved playing and taking care of her two daughters and just being her husband.
Glancing over at the judge, Tamara summed up how she felt about her husband: “I really am the luckiest woman.
Hardened members of the courthouse crowd were dabbing their eyes.
She hit all the bases experience, heroics and compassion.
Tough stuff to run against.
Tamara gave the best speech at the robing ceremony and one of the best I’ve ever heard about a judicial candidate. And I’ve listened to them all the way back to the 1970s.
She should take it on the road — to condominiums, civic groups and political clubs.
MOST JUDGES DON’T HAVE A TAMARA
Most judges are going to have to campaign without their wife. Some have been through elections before, such as County Judge Peter Skolnick.
Others, especially some of the appointees, don’t have a clue about being a candidate. They’ve got to learn fast.
Because the only thing certain about the judiciary this year is…they’ll be a lot of new judges after the election.