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.

New Florida Poll Indicates Significant Support for Supreme Court Retention

A new Florida poll shows the Florida state Supreme Court getting an overwhelming vote of confidence from the Florida bar, according to the Herald. The poll asked bar members about their support of the three Supreme Court justices up for retention, as well as 15 appellate court judges. The poll showed the Supreme Court justices with an average approval of 90 percent while the 15 appellate judges received approval ratings ranging from 76 to 94 percent. The poll could be a useful campaign tool for the Supreme Court justices in their quest to retain their seats.

The poll is yet another indication that the witch hunt to throw out the justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince is ridiculous. The fact that 7,857 lawyers participated in the poll gives the justices something significant to hang their hats on in the two months leading up to election day. The poll’s significance is derived from the fact that lawyers by nature are better evaluators of a Supreme Court’s performance than the average Florida resident. For the Florida Supreme Court, this as strong an endorsement as they could have hoped to land, as no attack ad can discredit the opinions of close to 8,000 lawyers. The poll also validates what pundits have been saying for months now: Restore Justice 2012’s efforts are being fueled by special interests rather than by poor performance by the justices.

The point of the Supreme Court is to interpret the law as set forth in the Constitution in order to maintain a system of checks and balances. Supreme Court justices are not supposed to make decisions based on being a liberal or conservative, but rather based on what the law says and their interpretation of it. Restore Justice 2012, however, feels differently; they are trying to undermine the Constitution and the very fabric America was built from by trying to remove justices Quince, Pariente, and Lewis. Restore Justice 2012 hopes to have Rick Scott appoint three new justices who will disregard the Constitution and make decisions based on ideology and corporate America.

The stakes are higher than most Floridians realize. Should Restore Justice 2012 and the Tea Party get their way, it will allow Governor Scott and the conservative legislature to do pretty much whatever they want. Governor Scott would be able to pass pretty much any law or amendment regardless of how radical it is because he will have three justices who he knows will support him. Should Restore Justice 2012 get their way, it will reshape the judicial system and allow Governor Scott to turn Florida into his personal playground. Voters should look at this poll and think long and hard before deciding to cast a vote against retention.

The bar poll makes it clear that the Supreme Court have not done anything worth being thrown out for. The poll targeted the most knowledgeable people in the state in regard to the judicial system, and they overwhelmingly agree that all three justices should be retained. Whether or not to retain the Supreme Court justices shouldn’t be an issue of politics, but rather an issue of values and integrity. Should the justices be removed, it will undermine the integrity of the Florida judicial system, as well as the values set forth in the state and national Constitutions. Checks and balances were created to regulate the political system. By allowing Rick Scott to appoint three new justices those regulations will be completely gone. Come November, Floridians need to stand up to the Governor and special interests and vote to retain justices Pariente, Quince, and Lewis, as well as the integrity of the Florida judicial system.

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.