Florida Justices Seek to End Witch-hunt ASAP

Seeking to put a temporary end to the ludicrous witch-hunt mounted by ultra-conservatives, the three Florida Supreme Court Justices up for merit retention have sought to postpone depositions in the pending lawsuit against them. The lawsuit, which alleges that the justices broke state laws in filing election paperwork and seeks to remove them from the November ballot, is being fought by the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation on behalf of two Florida citizens. The justices have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and have now filed a motion seeking a protective order that would halt discovery (the taking of depositions) until a judge rules on their motion to dismiss the case.

The Atlanta-based law firm wants to take 22 depositions, including the three justices, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, law clerks, judicial assistants, and others involved in the case. The justices’ attorneys said, “Plaintiffs’ demand to take 22 depositions prior to the court deciding the motion to dismiss is oppressive and unduly burdensome.” For a lawsuit that seems frivolous, given the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s recent decision to not file charges on the same case, it would certainly be unreasonable to waste the time of so many state employees on a case that might be struck down.

The campaign against the judges has frequently been blasted by legal experts, in influential Florida newspapers, and by organizations such as Defend Justice from Politics and the Florida Bar. It has been analyzed at face value as a brazen attack on the bench by political leaders, ideologues, and others who wish to repopulate the bench with more conservative justices. This is not the intended function of the merit retention process, and it is worried that a hijacking by partisans could threaten the rule of law in Florida and reverberate across the country.

According to Tallahassee.com, focus groups have indicated that approximately 9 out of 10 people don’t understand the merit retention process, and that many associate the term with teacher merit pay. Organizations such as Restore Justice 2012 and The Southeastern Legal Foundation are banking on this dearth of information and are using cryptic tactics to persuade voters to vote “no” on merit retention. Although the lawsuit against the justices may indeed be struck down, the campaign against their retention will only heat up as the vote inches closer. In an attempt to stave off this unreasonable barrage of misinformation and inflated partisan rhetoric, multiple organizations are seeking to educate Floridians on merit retention; including the Florida Bar. If the average Floridian understood the purpose of merit retention, the risk of hijacking by special interests would be greatly mitigated.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation, through this petty lawsuit, is harping on a small misstep by the justices in an effort to tarnish their image and convince voters to misuse the merit retention process as a way to reformulate the bench. This same conservative legal group also moved to disbar Bill Clinton, overturn campaign finance reform, and is a skeptic of global warming. The justices are right to seek a quick dismissal of the lawsuit and postpone the taking of depositions to minimize the damage that the Southeastern Legal Foundation is attempting to generate. Justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince don’t deserve this irresponsible witch-hunt, and likely look forward to the day when they can escape the overwhelming political bedlam and return to what is really their job: judicial impartiality.

Rule of Law Reigns; Scott, Tea Party Unhappy

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) has concluded that three Florida Supreme Court Justices up for merit retention did not violate state law when they used a court employee to notarize campaign documents. State Attorney Willie Meggs wrote a letter to FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey informing him that no charges would be filed in the case, effectively ending the investigation ordered by Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood) and referred by Governor Rick Scott. Scott and other Tea Party supporters were unhappy with the ruling though, as it meant they would be unable to replace Justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince with their own harmonious nominations.

Meggs was resolute in his letter, saying “common sense should be used in deciding cases” and that “In this case, notarizing a signature is a minor act which was likely accomplished in less than a minute.” He continued further, saying that at most the violation by the judges was “minor…It is well established that the law does not concern itself with trifles.” According to the Orlando Sentinel, two lawyers for the justices also said that the judges had “cooperated fully with FDLE during the investigation, and were certain there was no impropriety nor violation of any law.”

Governor Scott responded sarcastically, saying “According to FDLE findings, it appears using state employees to complete and file campaign forms and other documents is ‘common practice.’ Now this case is before the courts where a determination will be made as to whether this ‘common practice’ is legal. Whatever the ruling, we will accept it and act accordingly.” This bitterness is illustrative of the stance Rick Scott has taken since the merit retention fight heated up, that of an instigator. Throughout this process, Scott has haphazardly defended partisan politics and taken the side of special interests against the rule of law.

The bipartisan group Defend Justice from Politics, mentioned in a previous post, responded with a scathing criticism of Governor Scott’s assessment of the investigation’s outcome. “Before the investigation was completed, he was on the record with his own determination of guilt – leveraging the mere existence of an investigation he choreographed to further smear the Justices with suggestions that they ‘ought to follow the law.’ Now he appears ready to reject the State Attorney’s conclusion that no law was violated, giving greater credence to a lawsuit filed by partisan ideological out-of-state lawyers funded by special interests. Governor Scott makes a habit of ignoring any outcomes that don’t play to his advantage. A fair and impartial judiciary is our last defense against politicians who will be satisfied with nothing short of absolute power.”

Although the investigation by the FDLE has been closed, the fight is not entirely over. A conservative Georgia-based organization, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, has file a lawsuit on behalf of two Florida residents claiming that without the notarization from court officials, the three judges would not be allowed on the November ballot. The lawsuit is seeking to force Secretary of State Ken Detzner from placing the three Justices on the ballot, effectively removing them from the bench and allowing Scott to nominate his own like-minded judges.

Aside from a very small minority of Tea Party-backed ideologues, much of Florida and the legal community have risen to the defense of the three justices up for merit retention. It is unmistakably clear that partisan beliefs and desires are fueling these inane attacks on the merits of these well-respected justices, and many groups have come forward to fight this campaign of misinformation and deafening rhetoric. Given Governor Scott’s acrimonious response to the Department of Law Enforcement’s decision not to file charges against the justices, it is obvious that the opponents of the bench have no respect for the rule of law. Although this fight will likely continue, the residents of Florida would be wise to ignore this background noise and make an educated decision. With full information and an understanding of the process, it is abundantly clear that Justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince objectively deserve a “yes” on merit retention.

The Headline Grabs Continue as Lawsuit is Filed Against Justices

An assortment of right-wing groups has continued their assault on the Florida Supreme Court, this time filing a lawsuit against the three justices up for merit retention. The conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation (discussed below in “Merit Retention Sources to be Leery About”) has filed a lawsuit asking Secretary of State Ken Detzner to remove justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince from the ballot in November, and effectively from the bench. Their complaint is riddled with sensationalized assertions, representing the latest attempt by special interests to grab headlines in an attempt to inject politics into our judiciary.

The Georgia-based Southeastern Legal Foundation has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lee County resident Bernard Long and Seminole County resident L. “Ron” Flores, claiming that the justices violated state law by using state employees to notarize election-related documents during office hours. The justices and many supporters claim that this is common practice; and election records show that four justices on the ballot in 2010 also had their paperwork notarized by court employees. Robin Rorapaugh, who has managed two gubernatorial races and two U.S. Senate Races, is heading the justices’ campaign against the constant mudslinging. Of the lawsuit, Rorapaugh stated: “This is clearly a headline hunt by the Southern Legal Foundation. Anyone can file false statements of facts and false statements of law in allegations just as this entity has in an organized attempt to besmirch the reputations of three Florida Supreme Court Justices.”

Thankfully, not everything is split along ideological lines. In this case, there are reasonable people from both sides of the aisle that are taking up arms to defend our independent judiciary. The group Defend Justice From Politics has been created with the goal of “protecting Florida’s Supreme Court from attacks by partisan politicians and special interests.” The group is headed by Miami businessman Stanley Tate, who also happens to be a staunch Republican. Tate succinctly states, “We cannot allow angry special interest groups or politicians to take over the Supreme Court in a blatant political power grab.” The group Justices at Stake, a nonpartisan campaign fighting for impartial courts, has joined the fight as well, featuring informational stories detailing Florida’s “political witch hunt.”

Governor Rick Scott has done nothing to quell the outrageous claims by these vocal minorities in Florida, instead choosing to flame the fires with his cryptic comments. First, the Tea Party-backed Scott ordered an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into the judges’ actions. Next, when asked about whether he thought the judges had broken the law, Scott said “They should comply with the law. It’s the Supreme Court. You’d think they would comply with the law.” These see-through annotations are not doing anything to remove the assumption that the campaign against these justices is just a protracted effort by Scott and the Tea Party to fill the Florida Supreme Court with new justices that share their conservative principles. This politicization of the bench is a threat to the independence of Florida’s judiciary; and seeks to upend the concept of justice as we know it.

These efforts to politicize the bench will likely only increase as we inch closer to the election in November, but we can quell some of the misinformation by supporting efforts like Defend Justice From Politics, Justices at Stake, and the educational campaign by the Florida Bar. If Florida residents understand that merit retention is not in place to boot out judges for being “too liberal” or “too conservative,” we will maintain our vibrant impartial judiciary for years to come.

Roberts Healthcare Decision Highlights Impartiality of the Bench

The recent decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was shocking, unpredictable, and scandalous; but only to those who had hoped the Supreme Court would emerge as the third political branch of the U.S. government. In previous rulings, Roberts had sided with the Court’s conservative stronghold, including on contentious issues like campaign finance, abortion, and affirmative action. Yet in one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in recent memory, Roberts bucked the trend, shirked his own ideology, and showed precisely why the impartiality of the bench must be preserved.

Polls have shown that respect for the highest court in the land have been dipping lately, presumably due to the perception that the members of the bench had morphed into simple extensions of the presidents that nominated them. Roberts, in one week, single-handedly crushed that sentiment. With the Court’s decisions regarding Arizona’s immigration laws and Obama’s healthcare overhaul, the Court’s objectivity was restored. While the political tendencies of justices will never be completely eradicated, Roberts’ decision on healthcare illustrates the incredible importance of impartiality of the bench. For this Supreme Court, despite their deep divisions, decided by a majority that the law is the utmost importance, not political opinions.

Florida is entangled in much of the same drama that has surrounded the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2010, the Florida Supreme Court voted 5-2 to reject a constitutional amendment that would allow Florida to opt-out of federal health care reform because it failed to meet the state’s ballot requirements. The same conclusion had been made by Circuit Judge James Shelfer, who himself concluded that the amendment’s wording was “manifestly misleading,” and must be removed from the ballot. Despite this technical mistake perpetrated by the conservative creators of the amendment, Tea Party ideologues harped upon this decision as “activist” and said the justices were “legislating from the bench.” The focus quickly drifted from what was acceptable under the law, to what was politically convenient. Groups like “Restore Justice 2012” emerged, convincing voters to vote “no” on all three justices in the impending merit retention vote and aiming to give Tea Party governor Rick Scott the ability to nominate three new conservative justices. Although merit retention was intended to remove money and politics from the judiciary, its recent hijacking has threatened to do just the opposite.

After his groundbreaking decision, Roberts spoke briefly of the U.S. Supreme Court’s legacy, saying that he hoped they would be remembered “for protecting equal justice under the law.” The majority decision succinctly stated: “We do not consider whether the act embodied sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the Nation’s elected leaders. We ask only whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the challenge provisions.” This holding echoed, ironically, President Barack Obama’s rationale for opposing Roberts’ nomination to the Court. Whilst Obama thought Roberts would favor the strong over the weak, Roberts assured Congress that he would instead act as a judicial umpire, not intending to pitch or bat.

In the same token, Floridians must not get sucked into the vagaries frequently spewed by the Tea Party and its supporters. We must take the courageous lead from Chief Justice John Roberts and judge our justices on their application of the law, not their political ideologies. As I’m sure we can all agree, more than enough politics are played in the executive and legislative branches of our government. We must not let money, politics, and subjectivity enter our judicial branch. Vote “yes” for the law, “yes” for an impartial bench, and “yes” for Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince.