By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
A federal judge threw out an attempt by a conservative group to oust three justices on the Florida Supreme Court. These three judges were considered the most moderate to left-leaning members of the court.
The conservative political group tried to have these three judges removed from the November ballot, since all three are up for a retention vote to stay on the court.
Democrats and other critics have called the lawsuit a political power grab. Republican Gov. Rick Scott would get to appoint replacements if the justices should be taken off the ballot or defeated at the polls.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said a pair of voters who are against retaining the justices had no legal right to sue. The voters are represented by lawyers from the Atlanta-based conservative Southeast Legal Foundation, who said they would appeal. The justices, who oversee Florida’s court system in addition to issuing appellate rulings, come up for retention votes every six years.
The suit alleged that Justices Peggy Quince, R. Fred Lewis and Barbara Pariente illegally used court employees to advance their campaigns because the staffers helped prepare their election qualifying papers. The justices deny any wrongdoing.
Lewis said the plaintiffs lack standing to sue because there’s nothing that sets them apart from other voters.
The Southeast Legal Foundation describes itself as a “policy center that advocates limited government, individual economic freedom, and the free enterprise system in the courts of law and public opinion. Our mission is to engage in litigation and public policy advocacy in support of these principles.”
If successful, this power grab would have allowed Gov. Scott to replace the more moderate members of the court with more conservative justices of his choosing.
What’s important to note here is that conservatives in Florida have control over most of the state’s lawmaking bodies. A Republican sits the governor’s office, the attorney general is conservative, the GOP leads the Florida House, and Republicans dominate the Florida Senate.
The last check for conservative policy and agendas in Florida is the courts — and if you’ve been paying attention, you know the courts have been the only roadblock to a complete conservative overhaul of the state.
That is why the next focus for a conservative change has to be the courts — if conservatives want to continue their agenda. The trend so far has been that the law is not on their side, so the best solution right is to remove the people that stand in the way.
Already, a mounting number of legal challenges have been levied against the state’s conservative agenda. By in large, the challenges have been considerably successful. Scott has lost so many lawsuits, it’s hard to keep track at this point.
This year’s antiretention drive, which is being led by a group based in Orlando with ties to the Tea Party, Restore Justice 2012, appears more robust, and it is being aided and abetted by the Republican governor, Rick Scott.
Restore Justice is focusing on the judges’ records. For his part, the governor has seized on the judges’ sloppy but innocuous use of court staff to notarize required financial disclosure filings.
An investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, ordered by Mr. Scott, found no evidence that the judges abused their official positions — a conclusion seconded by the state attorney, Willie Meggs. But instead of accepting this exoneration, Mr. Scott gave his blessing to a meritless lawsuit filed in June by a right-wing legal policy group based in Georgia that calls for disqualification on the same grounds.
If the three justices lose their retention battle, it would give Mr. Scott three court vacancies to fill with his own judicial picks. It would also send a message of intimidation undermining judicial independence and impartiality — a price no Florida voter should be willing to pay.
However, this was just a battle. The war to make the Florida Supreme Court more conservative has not ended.
Besides a retention vote for those three justices, the November ballot will feature an interesting constitutional amendment.
Amendment 5, if passed, will split the Supreme Court into two divisions — civil and criminal — and allow the governor, now the conservative Scott, to appoint a chief justice for each division as well as new members to the state’s highest court.
According to the Vote No Committee, funded largely by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida:
Amendment five was placed on the November 6th, 2012 ballot by the Florida Legislature. It is a power grab by the Legislature and special interest lobbyist friends to exert more control over the Courts and violates the separation of the Legislative and Judiciary branches government that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind. The language is purposefully long and complex, but there are certain provisions of the Amendment that are intended to increase control of the courts. First, It will require only a SIMPLE majority vote (50% + 1) of the Legislature to repeal a court procedural rules, whereas now a stricter super majority (66%) is required, and secondly, It would require Supreme Court Justice nominees to go thorough a politicized Senate confirmation process.
The ACLU of Florida has been one of the most active and successful legal challengers to the state’s conservative agenda since Scott took office in 2010.