By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Besides backing from the Florida GOP, a conservative effort to oust three judges from the Florida Supreme Court is getting big bucks from Americans for Prosperity, a national right-wing group heavily funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.
Several days ago, the Florida Republican Party executive board voted to oppose Florida Supreme Court Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. All three justices are facing merit retention votes in November, which means Floridians will get to vote on whether to keep them in the Supreme Court.
Merit retention was created in Florida in the ’70s in an effort to remove politics from the state’s independent judiciary, since governor’s are tasked with appointing Florida Supreme Court justices. However, a conservative group called Restore Justice, as well as others, have set their sights on three judges they claim are more liberal than the others.
The group, in essence, wants the three justices to be voted out of the court. If this happens, Gov. Rick Scott will appoint three justices of his choosing to replace them. Never in the history of merit retention votes has a justice been removed from the court.
However, this is not like most years.
This week, Americans for Prosperity unveiled one of many Internet ads targeting these three justices.
The first ad accuses the Florida Supreme Court of shutting out Floridians from voting on Affordable Care Act. Reuters reports:
Slade O’Brien, president of AFP of Florida, told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times: “We’re not advocating for the election or defeat of any of the justices. What we’re attempting to do is call more attention to them advocating from the bench.”
In 2010, the three justices joined the majority in a 5-2 decision to reject a state effort to invalidate the heath care reform. Last year, the court also rejected a move by Republican Governor Rick Scott to circumvent the legislature in agency rulemaking.
The Florida Supreme Court has often been at odds with the Republican-led Florida Legislature and a series of Republican governors over the last dozen years. In 2000, the three judges joined a majority of the court to order Florida election officials to recount ballots in the presidential election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. That decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
These justices also cannot pay for their own campaigns to defend themselves against Americans for Prosperity and others. So other political groups will have to come to their defense.
The justices are also going around the state in what the Palm Beach Post called a “traveling road show” aimed at defending their record to business leaders, as well as explaining that this effort from the GOP and Americans for Prosperity to unseat them “threatens democracy.”
Speaking before a breakfast meeting of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Barbara Pariente said a Republican-backed effort to remove them from office in November is a dangerous step back in time to when judges traded favorable decisions for political favors.
“You need to go to court, knowing that the judge has no other agenda other than to look at the merits of the case,” Quince told the crowd of roughly 200. “You may not agree with every decision but you should be able to say I was before a judge who was fair and impartial.”
Pariente, who served on the West Palm Beach-based 4th District Court of Appeal before being appointed to the high court in 1997, agreed. “The judicial branch is designed to have judges who are not beholden to special interests, who are not beholden to who pays them the most money,” she said.
However, as Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen explains, the justices and these groups are fighting against some very powerful forces:
Twice before Floridians have voted to keep these justices, but now the Kochs from Wichita say they know better.
You won’t see David or Charlie in any of the campaign commercials because they don’t like people to know they’re prying.
Their multinational fortune comes from oil refineries, fertilizers, cattle, commodities, chemicals and paper mills. Next time you reach for Angel Soft toilet paper, think of the Koch brothers.
… Americans for Prosperity has a bottomless war chest to use against Lewis, Pariente and Quince. Be assured that Gov. Scott is rooting for the Kochs.
He’d love to have three openings to fill on the Supreme Court. The last thing these guys want is fair judges who know the law; they want partisan judges who’ll obediently support their political agenda. It’s worse than just trying to buy an election. It’s trying to hijack Florida’s justice system at the highest levels.
As I have mentioned before, the effort to politicize the court does not stop at a merit retention vote. The GOP-led Florida Legislature also put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that experts say would politicize the Florida Supreme Court.
Amendment 5 would change the Florida Constitution to say that the Florida Senate has to confirm state Supreme Court nominees. If passed, it would also allow the Florida Legislature to repeal any court decision with only a majority, which is 50 percent plus one. Right now, the legislature needs a supermajority.
You can check out the Americans for Prosperity ad here: