By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The executive board of the Republican Party of Florida on Sept. 21 voted to oppose the merit retention of Florida Supreme Court Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, picking up a fight that conservatives have already lost once.
On Nov. 6, voters will have the opportunity to approve (or not) another six-year term for Justices Pariente, Lewis and Quince. In the history of merit retention votes inFlorida, no state Supreme Court justice has lost this vote.
Merit retention was created to remove politics from the state’s independent judiciary, since governor’s appoint Supreme Court justices.
Currently, the fight to oppose the three justices comes from a very conservative flank of the Florida GOP.
According to a conservative group called Restore Justice 2012, Justices Pariente, Lewis and Quince are considered the more liberal members of the Florida Supreme Court, which has seven members.
In the past few years, a small number of conservative political groups have attempted to oust these justices. However, one effort to remove them without a merit retention vote failed just last month.
This didn’t stop GOP party leaders, though.
The Palm Beach Post reports that this move has upset some of the other members of the Republican Party, as well as supporters of the justices who said this is a way for conservatives to remove justices that do not vote in their favor.
Rulings by the Florida court on school vouchers and ballot initiatives sought by the Republican-ruled legislature have angered conservatives. The three justices targeted were appointed by late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, with Quince named jointly with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush …
Restore Justice has received almost all of its contributions from a South Florida doctor, Allan Jacob, who contributed $59,250, according to the group’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
State records show Restore Justice also has filed in Florida as an “electioneering communications organization,” which can influence races by running ads and mailings. The so-called ECO raised $1,075 between Aug. 13 and Sept. 14.
Justice Lewis told the Miami Herald that the campaign against him and his colleagues is getting out of hand.
The Herald reported that Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group connected to the billionaire Koch brothers, has thrown their influence into the campaign against the justices. According to The Herald, “the group will run television ads across the state chastising the justices for ruling against a 2010 proposed constitutional amendment intended by the Florida Legislature to counter President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act”:
“This is the most stressful time I’ve ever experienced in my life,’’ said Justice R. Fred Lewis at a meeting of the Hillsborough County Bar Association. “There is an entire branch of government to protect and defend. We cannot sacrifice fairness and impartiality and the court system to political whims.”
… Lewis said the announcement by the RPOF shifted what had been a whisper campaign against the three justices into a frontal assault on the judiciary.
“The idea was to vote out all three justices so Gov. [Rick] Scott could replace them,’’ he said.
He urged the Hillsborough lawyers to come to the defense of the merit retention system, put in place under former Gov. Reubin Askew. He had responded to a long history of abuse and corruption in the judiciary when justices were elected to office.
“If we allow politics to overtake the three branches of government, we no longer will have the democracy we’ve enjoyed for 200 years,’’ Lewis said. “I’m trusting that somewhere in the middle there are fair-minded individuals who believe the court system is too valuable to kill through partisan politics.”
The unprecedented move by the Republican Party was roundly rebuked by lawyers and former Supreme Court justices on both sides of the aisle on Monday.
Besides the merit retention fight over those three justices, conservatives in the state legislature also passed a resolution in 2011 asking voters to approve a change to Florida’s constitution that experts say would politicize the Florida Supreme Court.
The measure, Amendment 5, would require the Florida Senate to confirm state Supreme Court nominees and would allow the legislature to repeal any court decision with only a majority, which is 50 percent plus one. Right now, the legislature needs a supermajority, a vote count much harder to achieve.
The Florida Bar Association and the ACLU of Florida have warned that, if passed, the measure would be disastrous.