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.

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