Merit Retention Sources to be Leery About

In this hyper-partisan world we live in, it is increasingly difficult to determine which news sources truly represent objective journalism. More often than not, news sources have become rostrums for each political extreme, sacrificing unbiased reporting for focused, ideological content. We live in a world where Fox News, now a virtual arm of the Republican Party, refers to their production as “Fair and Balanced” and the left-leaning MSNBC instead asserts that it “Lean(s) Forward.”

Nowhere is this distinction more evident than the contentious merit retention vote that is quickly approaching in Florida. In it, Florida Supreme Court Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince will be up for merit retention, which means that voters will be given the option to vote “yes” to retain the judges or “no” to remove them. Judges are intended to be removed only if they remain no longer qualified for the job or fit to serve, not kicked out for political motives.

Yet that is the situation we face now, with various organizations and parties fighting to politicize the one part of government that must remain impartial to maintain a vibrant democracy. So how can one learn about the merit retention process without being swayed by the mysterious organizations and enigmatic people that claim to be dispensing educational material? To aid in this process, I have briefly described the organizations and characters that are providing the majority of the ruckus around merit retention. After reading, you’ll realize that the educational campaign by the Florida Bar is far and away the best supplier of unbiased, factual information about judicial retention.

Restore Justice 2012: Restore Justice is the organization that thus far has provided the largest, most organized opposition to the justices in the merit retention vote. Although they are masquerading as an organization trying to educate Florida voters on the justices and retention process, they have instead simply tried to convince Florida residents that the three Supreme Court justices should be voted out for what they call “judicial activism.” This same organization tried to unseat Justices Jorge Labarga and James Perry in 2010, but was unsuccessful. Despite their claims of impartiality, Restore Justice is designated as a 527 organization for political purposes, and has collected over $40,000 for their campaign.

Jesse Phillips: The president of Restore Justice, Inc, Jesse is one of the most outspoken and regular critics of the Florida Supreme Court justices. Jesse has described himself as a former youth pastor and is the Judicial Reform issue lead on the steering committee for the Tea Party Network, a collection of around 70 Tea Party groups around Florida. He is friends with Rep. Scott Plakon (R, Longwood), the legislator who has been a regular detractor of the Court and frivolously asked Gov. Rick Scott for an investigation into the filing of election paperwork by the three justices.

Sunshine State News: One of the newest web-based media creators on the scene in Florida, Sunshine State News has received a multitude of press for many of the wrong reasons. Among them are worries about transparency, as the company has not yet released information on its ownership and investors. According to the Tampa Bay Times, “a study completed last summer by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism ranks Sunshine as the least transparent news website in journalism’s new Internet-based landscape.” Self-described as “the only news organization in Florida with an editorial board that believes free-market, less-government solutions will prove successful,” the organization is unmistakably written by Tea-Party activists, for Tea-Party activists. Their regular claims alleging that “merit retention is a farce,” and “Florida has a higher rate of judicial activism than any other state” have been easily debunked on this blog and elsewhere.

Southeastern Legal Foundation: This conservative political advocacy organization from Georgia has contended, and likely will continue to claim, that the three Supreme Court justices are breaking the law by raising money to mount a campaign for merit retention. This claim is entirely untrue, as they are permitted to campaign and raise funds if they are presented with organized opposition (see Restore Justice 2012). The Georgia-based organization, headed by Shannon Goessling, also moved to disbar Bill Clinton and is a skeptic of global warming.

Has the Florida Merit Retention System Been Hijacked?

It is a shame that we have come to this junction, forced to consider the virtues of a merit retention system; but it appears we are moving in such a direction. Although the circumstances dictating this system’s conception were hospitable, the winds have changed and we may be entering a period where we are forced to seriously rethink aspects of the Florida merit retention process. Due to semi-tectonic shifts in the political landscape, the current assault on Florida’s Supreme Court may render our current system untenable. The merit retention system was devised to remove the intoxicating effects of money and politics on the judiciary, but they seem to be returning in full force.

On one hand, Florida’s merit retention system allows us the means to, as concluded by its creator, former Governor Reubin Askew, “help keep politics out of the courtroom and go a long way to developing fair and impartial court decisions.” The previous two options were lifetime appointments or requiring judges to mount political campaigns. The first was unpopular because judges with lifetime appointments were never held accountable to voters. The second was Florida’s previous system, which caused considerable conflicts of interest with money streaming in and politics being played by members of the bench. The current retention system allowed voters the opportunity to determine whether a justice remained qualified for the job, yet removed the possibility of a judge’s impartiality being ruined by the flow of money and politics.

On the other hand, the system that has valiantly served seven governors now seems to be falling victim to the same evils it had tried to escape. A loose collection of Tea Party-backed groups is mounting a campaign to unseat Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince. This crusade is not a well-meaning coalition intended to educate voters on the qualifications of Supreme Court justices, but an ideological attempt to hijack the merit retention system for political motives. Many are nervously commenting that rich donors could enter the fold late in the process, infusing millions of dollars in an effort to being out voters to say “no” to the three justices because they are pegged as “activist.” This would allow Tea Party-backed Governor Rick Scott to fill the bench with like-minded justices, effectively allowing money and politics to capture the one aspect of government that must remain impartial.

So how could we fix the merit retention process to better suit our goals? One of the best options would be to educate voters (all voters, not merely those with partisan beliefs) on the merit retention process, the standards that judges should be held to, and what would necessitate a “no” vote on merit retention. There are certainly non-partisan ways to educate the voting-age population of a state. For example, in 1988 Colorado created performance evaluation commissions (populated by lawyers, law enforcement officers, jurors, and other citizens) to assess judicial performance and release this information to the public. The Florida Bar has taken up this lead in this merit retention race, seeking to educate voters on the process and the benchmarks each judge should be held to. In order to educate voters, Florida could expand the Bar’s own Judicial Evaluation Committee, or choose to create an entirely different program as Colorado did.

These kinds of informative campaigns are in direct contrast to movements like Reform 2012, which exhibit strict political motives under the thin veil of voter education. With amorphous groups of people campaigning against Supreme Court justices, money and politics are just re-entering the judicial system that shunned them over 30 years ago. If hyper-partisan factions are going to try to hijack Florida’s merit retention process through misinformation, we must take it back through information.

Governor Rick Scott goes for cheap political points in ordering Supreme Court investigation

Florida Governor Rick Scott has ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to decide if three Supreme Court justices should be investigated for criminal actions, hoping to score cheap political points for what appear to be diminutive and petty allegations. Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, alleges that three veteran Florida Supreme Court justices illegally used state employees to help finish election-related paperwork. Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince had their election paperwork notarized by court employees so they could turn it in on time to be eligible for the merit retention ballot in November.

Although a state law prohibits candidates for office from using state employees to help their campaign during working hours, it is unclear if this law applies to judges as well and has not been used against them in the past. As reported by the Associated Press, election records show that four justices on the ballot in 2010 also had their paperwork notarized by court employees. These clerical actions are not uncommon, nor are they something that the governor and other state legislators should be wasting their time worrying about.

It has also been alleged by some (including the ideological political advocacy group Southeastern Legal Foundation) that the justices are breaking judicial ethics codes by campaigning for their merit retention in November. Florida laws say that justices are not permitted to campaign or raise funds unless there is an organized opposition. An organization, Restore Justice 2012, clearly constitutes “organized opposition,” despite their arbitrary claims to the contrary. Their website includes a section labeled “Stop Judicial Activism” which explains decisions it does not support, there are events where Restore Justice will be speaking around the state, and the group even offers “campaign materials” for sale in their website store. Restore Justice is designated as a 527 organization for political purposes.

Using paltry allegations to rouse up the notion that these justices are somehow unfit to be retained in November is cheap political grandstanding. In reality, Governor Rick Scott and other lawmakers are doing more campaigning against these veteran justices than the justices are doing against their constant barrage of frivolous attacks. Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince do not deserve these flippant assaults on their character, and they certainly do not deserve to be voted out in November. It is abundantly clear that uber-conservative, Tea Party politics are behind these assertions, not a legitimate care for the future of Florida and a respect for the judiciary. Vote “yes” to retain Justices Pariente, Lewis and Quince, and ensure that Florida’s judicial system remains non-partisan for the foreseeable future.