Florida Supreme Court Justices Kick Off Their First Campaign

Three members of the Florida state Supreme Court have begun to hit the campaign trail to try and solidify their standing for November’s election. Justice Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, and Fred Lewis are all on the November voting ballot for merit retention. The campaigning is unheard of by a state Supreme Court, almost as unheard of as the circumstances surrounding the November ballot. While there has never been a Florida justice removed from the Supreme Court before, that could very well change this year.

The three Florida justices up for merit retention have unfortunately found themselves facing a situation unlike anything that’s ever been seen in Florida before: A swath of special interest groups are actively mounting an advertising campaign to have the three justices removed. In light of this opposition, the Florida Supreme Court justices have begun to campaign around Florida. Their goal is to educate the electorate about what merit retention is and about their own records. The justices are trying to inform people on the importance of excluding politics from the Supreme Court. The justices are meeting with everyone ranging from regular residents to newspaper outlets.

The position the justices have been put in is a precarious one. In order to keep their jobs, they are being forced to tread a fine line between actively campaigning and undermining the Florida judicial system. Of course, the upheaval of the legal system could be completely avoided if the justices were left to do their job. Unfortunately a technicality, merit retention, has allowed special interest groups to pour money into races against judges. These special interest groups are trying to force the justices into voting how the people want, rather than voting based on the constitution they were sworn to uphold.

Ironically, the merit system was created to remove politics from the Supreme Court. Lawmakers believed that justices would be more likely to be impartial if they didn’t have to worry about running against another candidate. Until the last couple of years, the system has operated as smoothly as it was planned, until special interests and super PACs found a way to get the three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010. What’s at stake this November is more than just the positions of three justices, it’s also the role of the legal system, constitution, and politics in Florida. Should Florida’s Supreme Court members be removed a dangerous precedent will be set as justices may start pandering to special interests and lobbyists just to keep their jobs.

As November gets closer you can expect to see much more of your Supreme Court justices than you ever have before. They will in all likelihood stay in the public eye as they try to fight off smear campaigns, right wing special interest groups pouring ungodly sums of money into the race, and even their own governor. For the first time the Florida Supreme Court is being forced to actively campaign. The only way to stop this witch hunt and maintain the strength of the legal system is to make sure that all three justices are retained.

Merit Retention Turns Justice Into Politics

One of the largest pitfalls of merit retention is that it forces justices to become politicians. As a recent New York Times editorial points out, justices must now waste time actively campaigning and raising money. Without doing so, justices run the risk of sharing the same fate as Marsha Ternus, David Baker, and Michael Streit, the three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were removed from office during the 2010 elections. The Iowa justices faced a flurry of attack ads from Super-PACs run by conservative fringe groups. Without campaigning and raising money, justices run the risk of being overwhelmed on the air again this fall.

The most glaring problem with merit retention is that it changes the way Supreme Courts vote. One of the main ideas behind the Supreme Court was that they would be committed to justice and immune from politics. However, the threat of removal from office has forced Supreme Courts to pander to voters and campaign donors while ignoring real justice. The Center for American Progress recently conducted a study that showed Supreme Courts in Alabama, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, are significantly more likely to rule in favor of corporations and big business. Between 2000 and 2010 the study showed that these Supreme Courts ruled in favor of corporations 71% of the time, a stunningly high percentage. The correlation to merit retention is evident as spending against justices has been extremely high in all of these states.

Supreme Court Justices, especially in Florida, have been on high alert since the 2010 results in Iowa. Even though the attempts to remove the justices are completely without merit, right-wing funding has put them in real danger. The Florida justices have had the deck stacked against them more so than any other Supreme Court in the country. The Florida group has done nothing worthy of being removed aside from being “too liberal.” Nonetheless, they have been forced to actively hit the campaign trail as a result of well funded attacks and lack of support from even their own governor, Rick Scott.

The push for the removal of Supreme Court justices is pushing the American legal system into dangerously uncharted waters. Right-wing ideologues such as Karl Rove, Rick Scott, and the Koch brothers have seemingly hijacked the legal system. While justices should be worried about the law they have now been forced to worry about their jobs. Even if efforts to remove justices fail, the far right will have still accomplished something: forcing Supreme Courts everywhere to keep politics in mind when they vote. It’s becoming clearer every day that merit retention is a poisonous path that is threatening to undermine our entire legal system.

Florida Judge Dismisses Frivolous Lawsuit against Justices

A Florida Circuit Judge has dismissed a lawsuit attempting to remove Justices Peggy Quince, R. Fred Lewis, and Barbara Pariente from the November merit retention ballot, determining that the two Florida voters did not have “standing,” or the legal right to sue. The lawsuit was brought by the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), which argued on behalf of two Floridians that the justices should be removed from the ballot for using state employees to notarize election paperwork. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) had previously concluded that it would not press charges on the same issue, saying that “the law does not concern itself with trifles.”

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis said that the case was without merit because the two Florida citizens could not prove that they were personally harmed by the justices remaining on the ballot. Southeastern Legal Foundation lawyer Shannon Goessling immediately announced that they would appeal the case and take it as far as they could, including the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. Ironically, Goessling said that the justices “flout the law with impunity,” even though that is precisely what her Tea Party-backed organization has been accused of doing for years. Knowing that an appeal was likely imminent, Judge Lewis said, “We’ll let the district court of appeal decide whether I’m right or not.”

The justices’ attorneys argued four different claims against the suit. First, those bringing the lawsuit needed to prove harm that was not shared by all of Florida’s taxpayers generally. Second, the circuit court was not the correct venue to seek remedy, as these issues are meant to be decided by the Judicial Qualifications Commission and Florida Elections Commission. Third, the justices did not break any state laws, even if the lawsuit was allowed to continue and all facts of the case were agreed upon. Fourth, the lawyers argued that even if they were found guilty of violating state law, the proper legal punishment would not be to remove them from the November ballot. Although Judge Lewis dismissed the lawsuit on the fact that the voters did not have “standing,” the multitude of arguments against this lawsuit helps indicate how ludicrous this lawsuit truly was.

Although it never should have been brought in the first place, this frivolous lawsuit is illustrative of the contentious tactics that conservative special interests have taken in order to smear the names of three of Florida’s most respected legal figures. It has become clear that instead of educational campaigns or constructive discourse on merit retention, the Tea Party and similar groups are content with mudslinging and inflated hyperbole. Although the dismissal of this ridiculous lawsuit is important in restoring normalcy to Florida’s legal system, it would be surprising if Restore Justice 2012 and other hyper-partisan groups did not have other similar tricks up their sleeve. A November vote, and an end to this political firestorm, cannot come soon enough.

Merit Retention Resources for Florida Voters

In a previous post, “Merit Retention Sources to be Leery About,” I outlined the groups that were mounting an opposition to the three Florida Supreme Court Justices up for merit retention and warned about their inflated rhetoric, questionable statistics, and their hyper-partisan politicking. Yet not all of the sources offering information on merit retention are worthless. In fact, there are a variety of entities that provide valuable information and authoritative perspectives on the issue. Some of these resources are outlined below:

The Florida Bar: Rightfully worried that special interests are attempting to take over the merit retention process and delude voters into making an uninformed decision, the Florida Bar has taken it upon itself to educate Floridians with a robust campaign called “The Vote’s in YOUR COURT.” Their website is information-rich, filled with succinct fact sheets, FAQ’s, Voting Guides, information on the justices, and academic journal articles on merit retention.

Respectable Newspapers and Journalists: As the campaign against the three Supreme Court Justices is entirely unwarranted and frivolous, there is no shortage of respectable publications that have written pieces detailing why Florida voters should not get swept up in the political tomfoolery.  These include quality articles by the New York Times, Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, the Financial News & Daily Record, Gavel Grab, The Ledger, News-Press, and many more.

Defend Justice from Politics: The nonpartisan group Defend Justice from Politics was created with the goal of “protecting Florida’s Supreme Court from attacks by partisan politicians and special interests.” The group is headed by prominent Miami businessman Stanley Tate, who happens to be a loyal Republican. Tate states, “We cannot allow angry special interest groups or politicians to take over the Supreme Court in a blatant political power grab.” This group’s website regularly posts articles about the issue and serves as a useful medium for constructive discourse about merit retention and its hijackers.

Informative Blogs: In addition to this blog, there are other publications that frame the Florida merit retention issue and analyze the actors and events in new and refreshing ways. A healthy dose of sources and points of view is the best way to become truly informed. As with all blogs, these should be read with a critical eye and should be corroborated by the reader or other sources, but they undoubtedly offer some interesting and insightful material. Some of these informational blogs include http://www.floridajustice.info/, http://hrrumph.com/, http://www.fairandimpartial.com/tag/merit-retention/, and http://www.thelawmatters.org/.

After a perusal of the quality information provided by all of these sources, it is easy to see how off-base the opponents of the three Florida Supreme Court justices are. The condemnation of their ideological attack on one of the most revered institutions in the country has been widespread, scathing, and bipartisan. With all of these sources striving to create an informed electorate, we can only hope that Justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince won’t fall victim to the latest obstreperous attack by ultra-conservative ideologues.