Lambda Legal Fights for Fair Courts in Florida
(Tallahassee, FL, December 14, 2006) — In court papers filed today, Lambda Legal defended the importance of having fair and impartial judges on the bench in the state of Florida.
“Just as people have a right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury, the people of Florida have a right to expect an unbiased judge to hear their case,” said Greg Nevins, Senior Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal based in its Southern Regional Office. “Our opponents filed this lawsuit as part of a coordinated campaign by extreme right-wing groups across the country to fill the courts with judges that agree with them on their issues and to have those very same judges rule on those very same issues when those cases come before them.”
The Florida Family Policy Council (FFPC) filed suit in the Northern District of Florida on August 28 against several officials with responsibility for enforcing the judicial rules. They seek to eliminate a judicial rule, or canon, that requires judges to recuse themselves from matters where they appear to have committed to a particular bias on a given issue that appears before them in court. The current recusal rule in Florida requires judges who have committed to vote a certain way to recuse themselves from a case.
FFPC’s lawsuit is the latest in a series of similar lawsuits brought by right-wing organizations seeking to allow biased judges to decide the very issues in which they’ve already declared their partiality. All four previous attempts to strike down the recusal rules in Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky and North Dakota were rejected. Each of the decisions in those cases stressed the importance of preserving a fair court for all parties arguing their cases before a judge.
Earlier this year, FFPC circulated a questionnaire to all Florida judicial candidates, which sought their positions on controversial issues like whether or not same-sex couples may marry. The group received 63 responses, 47 of which included refusals to respond to many of the questions. Those who refused to answer certain questions stated that they would not respond to a particular question because they were concerned that their answer might subject them to discipline or recusal under certain conditions. In an effort to ensure that biased judges would not be disqualified from hearing cases important to their organization, FFPC filed this lawsuit.
“We believe judges have a right to voice their opinions, but we also believe it is essential to have unbiased judges decide the issues that are brought before them,” Nevins said. “The job of a judge in our democratic system of checks and balances is to listen to the facts and arguments in every case with an open mind and to make fair, impartial decisions. If biased judges are allowed to determine the outcome of the controversial cases of our time, like a woman’s right to choose or whether gay men and lesbians have parental rights, then our entire system of checks and balances flies out the window.”
To help ensure that cases will be determined by fair and impartial courts, Lambda Legal launched Courting Justice. Courting Justice is Lambda Legal’s education campaign designed to add the organization’s unique perspective to the fight to defend judicial independence. Courting Justice brings a powerful voice to the public debate about the proper role of the courts in defending civil rights for all Americans. The campaign also seeks to ensure that LGBT and HIV-affected people know what’s at stake and how to get involved in efforts to defend judicial independence at the federal and state levels. As part of the Courting Justice campaign, Lambda Legal launched a special website to provide critical information about the role of the courts in protecting civil rights and current threats to that role. More information about Courting Justice can be found on its website at: www.lambdalegal.org/courtingjustice.
Gregory Nevins, Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta is the primary author of the brief and is joined by cocounsel Michael Morris of Law Office of Michael Morris, P.A. in Orlando, FL.
Contact: Jackie Yodashkin: 212-809-8585 ext. 229
Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.