Conservatives Taking Aim at Three Supreme Court Justices

Oct 26, 2012 by

As the election nears, voters are taking a look at this year’s lengthy ballot.

Amid the clutter is a terribly troubling power play by elements of the Florida Republican Party. Some conservatives are urging voters to vote against the retention of three Florida Supreme Court justices.

In 1976 Florida’s voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment requiring that the merit retention system be used for all appellate judges, after scandals led to the resignation of two justices.

Justices now are appointed by the governor and stand for retention at the next even-numbered election year and every six years after that.

It’s illegal for anyone to use a party affiliation in connection with a judicial election. All judicial races are required to be nonpartisan.

Additionally, judges are to refrain from campaigning on specific issues and are to run or seek appointment based only on their judicial knowledge and experience. Justices are forbidden from saying how they will decide cases.

Over the years, retention was commonplace. Usually, the justices are retained with comfortable margins.

These merit-retention elections are usually low-key, low-cost campaigns. Special interests and political parties have not weighed in — until now.

The Florida GOP, claiming a grassroots movement within the party, surprisingly announced a vote of the executive committee to oppose the retention of the three justices who are up for retention this year.

As a Republican state senator, this was the first I had heard of any grassroots movement.

The party’s unprecedented step of asking voters to turn out the justices — Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — has taken many in the legal system and in the party by surprise.

Americans For Prosperity (AFP), a conservative and well financed group affiliated with the Koch Brothers, teamed up with the party in this effort, which seems to be part of a national agenda.

Ousting the three justices would create enough seats for Gov. Rick Scott to reshape a court that has ruled against him on numerous occasions. This is a dangerous precedent that would jeopardize the vital independence of the court.

Merit retention was designed to give Floridians the ability to vote a justice off the bench for unethical, inappropriate or corrupt behavior. It was not intended to remove qualified, honorable, fair-minded individuals for political or ideological reasons.

Who are these three justices?

Barbara Pariente is a breast-cancer survivor who continued her service on the court despite undergoing chemotherapy and losing her hair.

Peggy Quince was the first African-American woman to serve on the state’s highest court. Her appointment was supported by both parties.

Fred Lewis is credited with creating a program that put thousands of lawyers in Florida public schools to teach our children about the justice system.

The Florida GOP, backed by AFP, cites a particular death sentence case as a reason to remove the justices.

An FIU professor, Elizabeth Price Foley, was commissioned by the Federalist Society to review controversial cases ruled on by the three justices. She concluded that the rulings “are in fact supported by some prior precedent and they do involve acceptable methods of legal reasoning”.

She opined that opponents who accuse them of judicial activism “will have a hard time making that label stick.”

Now the AFP is criticizing her report claiming the justices were “unprincipled” and “abused their power”.

Many in the legal profession, regardless of party affiliation, have rallied to defend the justices but, more importantly, the independence of the judicial system.

Some Republican candidates when questioned in candidate forums and debates have distanced themselves from the party’s action. Several Republican senators, including me, disagree with the politicization of the merit-retention process, believing it could harm citizens’ trust in the legal system and weaken the courage of justices to rule on cases based only on the law.

Other Republican elected officials, including the Attorney General, have declined to take a position.

It is up to the voters to protect the integrity of our justice system by voting “yes” to retain these honorable and qualified justices and sending a strong message to those trying to pack the court with ideologues. Our courts are not for sale.

As a Republican elected official, I am terribly disappointed by this overt effort to pack the Supreme Court with political pals who will do the bidding of those who have engineered this attack on judicial independence.

All columns are (c) Paula Dockery | No reprint rights to whole columns are ever granted without express permission. | To syndicate Paula Dockery's columns please write to