Future of Florida Judicial System on the Line Tuesday

While Florida has received heavy national attention due to its role as a swing state in the presidential election, an arguably more important decision will need to be made by Florida residents on Tuesday: whether to retain Florida Supreme Court justices Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince, and Barbara Pariente. Floridians will have to decide whether to keep custom by retaining the justices, or buck the trend and remove them from office. The importance of this vote cannot be taken for granted. Removing the justices would set a precedent that was meant to be avoided by the creation of merit retention: mixing law and politics.

Merit retention was implemented in Florida in the 1970s to end judicial corruption and political influence on justices. The idea behind merit retention was that justices would have to interpret the law without outside influence because Floridians would now have the option to remove them if they maintained their corruption. Justices are motivated to interpret only the constitution because the people now have the opportunity to remove them from office every six years. Since the inception of merit retention, there has yet to be a Supreme Court justice removed from office in this manner. That trend is now in danger as several right wing special interest groups have started a witch hunt to have the three justices up for retention removed.

These special interest groups, led by Restore Justice 2012, have tried to secure a right wing Florida Supreme Court by demonizing and defaming the justices up for retention, placing the integrity of the entire Florida judicial system at stake. Restore Justice 2012 has been aggressively pushing for the removal of the three justices so that three more right wing justices will replace them. What most Floridians don’t realize is that should the justices be removed, the governor of Florida is charged with appointing new justices to replace them. Not coincidentally, Florida currently has a right wing Tea Party governor, Rick Scott, who has also been pushing for the removal of the justices. By removing the justices, Governor Scott would have the ability to replace the justices with three of his choosing who would serve his political agenda.

Justice’s Quince, Pariente, and Lewis have come under fire not for their interpretation of the law but because their rulings have allegedly been “left-leaning.” Restore Justice 2012 created a scorecard giving the justices Fs across the board. Restore Justice 2012 fail to mention in their report card, however, how the justices various rulings fail to honor the Florida and United States constitutions. Instead, the report card hands out grades based on the ideological connotations of the justices’ decisions. What Restore Justice 2012, Governor Rick Scott, and the rest of the opponents of the justices fail to see, is the problem with voting based on ideology. Retention was not meant to be decided based on the political ideology of the justices on the ballot, but rather on whether they made rulings based on their interpretation of the constitution. Based on that criteria, there is no evidence whatsoever that suggests the justices have used anything but the constitution as a guide for making their decisions.

On Tuesday Floridians will cast a ballot not just for their next president, but also for the future of their judicial system. Should they choose to remove justices Quince, Pariente, and Lewis, they will effectively be turning back the clock to pre-retention times. Corruption may once again enter the legal system, as justices will make decisions based on the political climate for fear of a special interest group bombarding them with ads and pushing for their removal. Should Floridians spurn Restore Justice and its allies, they will show that judicial integrity and a better future are most important to them.

Supreme Court justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince have received a number of endorsements including former Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer, former governor Charlie Crist, the Federalist Society, and the Florida bar. These endorsements come from across both sides of the political aisle, showing the importance of ending the witch-hunt and keeping the Florida Supreme Court intact.

Federalist Society Becomes Latest Organization to Back Florida Supreme Court

The Federalist Society, a conservative law and public policy group, recently became the latest group to come out in opposition to the removal of Florida Supreme Court Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince. Despite a fellowship for law students meant to further conservative and libertarian principles, they have shot down the right wing push to have the justices removed on November 6, according to the Miami Herald. Their opposition to the removal of the Supreme Court justices comes as a surprise to many, as they are bucking the trend of other high profile figures with similar ideologies. The Federalist Society has published a report in which they contest that the Supreme Court has acted as “judicial activists.”

The Federalist Society recently commissioned Elizabeth Price Foley, a Florida International University professor, to review the nine cases being cited for “judicial activism” and the votes of the three justices up for retention. After reviewing the cases, Foley found no instances of activism in any of the nine decisions. “There are disagreements, true. But disagreements do not suggest that those with whom you disagree are unprincipled,” stated Foley. Due to the lack of evidence supporting activism, Foley believes that opponents of retention will have a difficult time making these accusations stick. Foley echoes a sentiment that In The Court has been saying for months: Justices can disagree over interpretations of the law, but as long as they are interpreting the law they are not failing in their responsibilities to the State of Florida.

The Federalist Society’s decision to buck the trend of their own party and ideology has come as a shock to many. The decision to break from groups like the Sunshine State News, who have demonized justices Lewis, Quince, and Pariente at every turn and recently called the Federalist Society “the nation’s premier fellowship of conservative and libertarian law students,” comes from the fact that they are a group of lawyers. While the Federalist Society may be a bedrock of conservative principles, they have chosen, like most legal groups, to back the justices on their interpretation of the law, not how conservative the court’s decisions are.

Despite the hard push from the right wing and the Florida Republican Committee to force out the justices, there have been many dissenters from the right side of the political aisle. Former Governor Charlie Christ and former State Republican party chair Jim Greer have already spoken out in favor of retention of the justices. Recently, the Naples News reported that Attorney General Pam Bondi refuses take a position on retention, despite the fact that her boss, Governor Rick Scott, has been one of the staunchest advocates of the justices’ removal. The bipartisan support for the justices makes it clear that this quest for removal truly has become a witch hunt.

While the choice should have been clear from the start, increasing support of retention from conservatives leaves little doubt that retention of Supreme Court justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince is in the best interest of all Floridians.

Public Servants Speaking Out Against Right Wing Assault

According to the Miami Herald, three public servants recently spoke out against the Florida GOP’s attacks on the state Supreme Court. Nelson Cuba and Jeff McAdams, both high ranking officials of police unions in Florida, as well as James Preston, who is the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, have publicly condemned the Florida GOP for their endorsement of the removal of Supreme Court Justices Pariente, Quince, and Lewis. Perhaps the most interesting part of the outcry from law enforcement is that the three officials are Republicans. Due to their proximity to the law, the three public servants are in a better position than most to understand the issues that go into whether the Florida Supreme Court Justices deserve to be removed from office.

The fact that the three officials are Republicans is telling. Despite their party affiliation, and the “liberal” record of the justices, Cuban, McAdams, and Preston, all understand what the dangerous potential consequences of removing the justices are. “It’s politics, pure and simple…make the right decision based on the law, not on politicians coming after them because they don’t like what they’re saying,” stated Cuba. Additionally, Cuba along with the police and fire unions have blamed Governor Rick Scott for allegedly working with several conservative special interest groups–one of which being run by the right-wing Koch brothers–to mount an effective campaign to remove the justices.

The opinions of the conservative heads of the unions show how radicalism of the efforts to remove the justices. “This is an effort to hijack the courts that we think is unacceptable…if these justices were inept, or incompetent, that is for the citizens of Florida to decide, not a political party dragging up misleading information on a decade-old death penalty case,” Preston stated. The death penalty case being referenced by Preston was that of Joe Elton Nixon, a man whose death penalty sentence was initially overturned in 2004 by this Supreme Court. However, while Nixon’s sentence was temporarily overturned, the Supreme Court eventually restored the sentence. In addition, the Florida GOP had the opportunity to push for their removal in the last merit retention in 2006, but chose not to do so. Instead, the state Party waited eight years. Conveniently, the Florida GOP’s attack on the Supreme Court comes in the same year that the Koch’s right-wing Americans for Prosperity along with another conservative group, Restore Justice 2012, both launched private ad campaigns against the three justices.

The heads of the unions are just the latest people to come out against the Florida GOP executive committee and the special interest groups who are pounding the Supreme Court with negative ads. Two weeks ago, the Florida Bar released a scathing statement attacking the Florida GOP, Americans for Prosperity, and Restore Justice 2012. Last week, former Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer stated that the attacks on the Supreme Court by his own party were wrong and baseless. Although more and more people continue to speak out against this witch hunt, it hasn’t stopped Americans for Prosperity or Restore Justice 2012 from making large ad buys on TV to attack the Supreme Court. The choice has become a stark one: Should Floridians vote to remove justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, and Fred Lewis, they will be voting for a politicized court and one that Rick Scott can use to pass an extremely conservative agenda. Should Floridians vote to retain the three justices, they will be voting for maintaining balance in the judiciary and keeping corruption out of the Supreme Court.

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.

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.

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.