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.

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.

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.