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.

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.

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.