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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
August 21, 2014
Dr. Susan A. MacManus, University of South Florida, Tampa
David J. Bonanza, Palm Bay, FL
Judicial Contests Getting More Attention in 2014
Few Floridians follow judicial contests closely, and many do not even realize that the initial races are held at the same time as the major party primaries, meaning that everyone can vote, regardless of party registration. But in a year when there are relatively few hotly contested party primary races, some of the judicial contests are grabbing bigger headlines than usual. Often, the presence of female candidates is sparking greater interest and generating more media coverage. 
In 2014, 260 circuit court judgeships are up for election. Women are candidates in 101 of them (39%)—either as unopposed or opposed.  
Of all 323 circuit court candidates, 115 (36%) are female. (See Figure 1.) Forty-nine of the female candidates are running in competitive circuit court races, while another 66 of them are running unopposed. (See Figure 2.) Overall, a higher percentage of women than men are candidates in competitive contests (43% v. 30%).
Among both female and male candidates, there are more incumbents than challengers. (See Figure 5.) However, the proportion of candidates who are challengers is higher among women than men (41% v. 28%). 
Trial Court Judgeships: Gateways to Appellate Court Positions
The growing presence of female candidates has tracked closely with more women graduating from law school and passing the Bar. Trial court judgeships are increasingly appealing to ambitious women who, like their male counterparts, perceive trial court judgeships as gateways to appellate court positions. (Some research has even shown that women are more ambitious to become judges than are men.) Other female candidates who aspire to trial court judgeships are drawn by the desire to make courts more representative and/or to bring a different voice or perspective to the bench.
Gender Breakdown of Candidates by Circuit and Status (Unopposed v Opposed)
Only one of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits (the 8th) has no female candidates. (See Figure 4.) The more heavily populated circuits (11, 13, and 9) have more female candidates for several reasons. First, more judgeships are available in those areas because the circuit total is based on population size and caseload. Second, metropolitan areas have more lawyers, more extensive networks for female lawyers and other professional women, more potential contributors to judicial campaigns, and potentially more media coverage.
Those metropolitan areas can be found in the circuits with the most judgeships up for election in 2014 (Figure 5). Circuit 11 (Miami-Dade) alone has 38 judgeships up for election, which constitutes nearly 15% of all such races statewide. Of the eight circuits with the most judgeships up for election, five can be found along the prized I-4 corridor. Two others, including Circuit 11, are found in populous South Florida, and the remaining one circuit of the eight, Circuit 7, is located in Northeast Florida.
Whom Should I Run Against?
Female (and male) candidates have two important decisions to make, specifically whether to: 
  • Run against an incumbent or seek an open judgeship. 
  • Run against someone of the opposite sex or of their own gender.  
Incumbent or Open Seat?
Running against an incumbent is often more difficult than running for an open seat. The decision to take on a sitting judge may be driven by that judge’s verdict pattern, a disciplinary action against him/her, or unsatisfactory behavior in the courtroom toward lawyers, witnesses, jurors, or the accused. Challengers may also choose to run against incumbents who are approaching mandatory retirement age (70). Even if the challengers lose, they hope that their candidacy will raise visibility for another run (or a gubernatorial appointment) when the incumbent retires.
Historically, open seat judicial contests are more competitive than incumbent-challenger races.  However, the odds of winning are sometimes higher than running against a well-known, highly-respected incumbent. 
Opponent of Own or Opposite Sex?
There are two lines of thinking about whether it is more advantageous for female judicial candidates to run against male candidates or other female candidates. In these nonpartisan and characteristically “low information” judicial races, female candidates may be better served running against male candidates. The female candidates’ contrasting gender may sway women voters, many of whom lack exposure to and knowledge of other factors.
On the other hand, women may perform better against other female candidates because doing so eliminates gender as a deciding factor for voters, some of whom may hold stereotypes that cast women as unfit for the bench. The decision to run against another female is typically more common among female judicial candidates in larger metropolitan areas. 
The more prevalent pattern across the U.S. has been for more women to run against males than females.
What about Florida’s Female Candidates for Circuit Court Judge in 2014?
The women candidates running for a Florida circuit court judgeship in 2014 follow general patterns observed elsewhere, although there are more female candidates in Florida than in a lot of other states and the number is rising. 
Specifically, the data reported in Table 1 show that:
  • Fewer female candidates have chosen to run against an incumbent than for an open seat.  
  • More men than women are running against an incumbent female judge.
  • More female candidates are in races against males than against other females. 
  • Judgeship contests with multiple female candidates are most prevalent in circuits located in the more populous areas—the circuits with more judgeships and more female lawyers. 
  • Exclusively women v. women races, while few, are more common in metropolitan-area circuits.
The fact that more women choosing to run in competitive races, including those against other females, is a sign of progress to many who see it as a step toward a more representative Florida circuit court judiciary.