It’s not a side of Flagler County Attorney Al Hadeed the public often sees: the passionate, nearly evangelical lecturer–or explainer, since his conversational explanations never go above anyone’s head–at full throttle on a matter of immediate public concern.
Hadeed juggled a couple of those matters this afternoon as he spoke to about three dozen people at a talk organized by the Friends of the Library to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution: retention elections for Florida Supreme Court justices, which, to his dismay, are getting dragged into the money-slush of limitless and anonymous electioneering; and a November ballot thickened by 11 proposed constitutional amendments, all of them put forward by the Florida Legislature, purposefully in long form, out of spite against the Supreme Court, which had invalidated numerous such amendment summaries for being deceptive. Supervisors of election fear the lengthy ballots, four pages long in some counties, will trigger voter fatigue, lengthening lines at the polls and reducing turnout–which may well be the GOP-dominated Legislature’s intentions, as lower turnouts tend to hurt Democrats and liberal causes more than Republicans and conservative ones.
Florida law requires ballot measures to be summarized and to be no longer than 75 words. But the Legislature exempted itself.
Hadeed termed himself worried about both issues resulting in various miscarriages, absent better the willingness of voters to inform themselves about judicial and constitutional matters on the November ballot. Those matters may seem intricate, but carry heavy consequences. Hadeed’s theme, though he was preaching mostly to a choir of involved voters, was to lay out the judicial matters in play in this year’s election.
“We have entered a new age, and that age is unlimited campaign spending, and you don’t know where the money’s coming from until it’s too late,” Hadeed said. “Florida has been targeted this year. We are now going to be victimized by the 30-second, or 60-second, if they can afford it, sound-byte about judges. This is really of concern to me. Judges are not supposed to be political people. They are not supposed to be subject to pressure. They are not supposed to fear retaliation in making their decisions. Would you want that? I don’t think that any of us would want that.”
Hadeed had spent a few minutes reminding an audience old enough to remember Florida’s great age of judicial corruption, when its supreme court, whose members were elected until 1972, was a swirl of corruption. Martin Dyckman, the former Tampa Bay Times reporter, memorialized the era in A Most Disorderly Court, his 2008 book on “scandal and reform in the Florida judiciary.” Nothing has resembled that era since. But never since had justices of the Florida Supreme Court been targeted for removal as three of those justices are being targeted this year, with flowing money to finance the campaign: Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince. They are the court’s liberal wing, and they’re being targeted by conservative groups. Hadeed didn’t mention the justices by name: he steered clear of making so much as a single partisan allusion. But he’d spoken repeatedly of voters’ responsibility to be informed. And informed voters knew what justices he was referring to.
“You’re going to see a lot of mailers, TV ads,” he continued. “And it is wrong. But it is free expression. It is the First Amendment. And the United States Supreme Court said, hence the law of the land, that you can spend these unlimited moneys without having to have limitations. So what does that do? To me, that properly increases the responsibility of the citizens to learn and to know. And you can learn about all these justices on the Florida Bar website. There’s a lot of data about merit retention.”
Since Florida did away with the election of its supreme court justices, it instituted a system of “merit retention,” which also applies to judges on appellate, circuit and county benches (circuit and county court judges are still elected to win office). Judges don’t stand for elections against other candidates, but their names appear on the ballot with one question, asking voters whether that judge should be retained: yes or no. Overwhelmingly, voters say yes, unless the judge is tainted by scandal–or, as may be the case this year, unless campaigns create the impression of scandal.
“Let me tell you about some of the scary things. There’s a couple of scary things coming up here,” Hadeed said. “They’ve done polling and studies. A lot of people think that when they see the name of a Justice–there’s just one name, shall Justice–I’ll make up a name–Smith be retained in office. A lot of people think, Oh my gosh, there’s something wrong with that guy. They’re putting him on there because he did something wrong. Because they don’t understand merit retention.”
Hence the importance of voter education, Hadeed said. But he was only getting warmed up. He then turned to the loading of ballots with constitutional amendments.
“Now, there’s going to be incredible voter confusion and fatigue this election,” he said. “Why? Actually, because the Legislature, just like some of those earlier momentous fights that I talked about in the early history of the country, are fighting the whole court. Because the whole court, as you know, has invalidated a number of ballot measures that the Legislature wants to put on the ballot, because the summary that they wrote, what we read when we go into the voting booth, is misleading. It’s defective in some way. So they remove it from the ballot. So the Legislature said, What–I’d use some choice words here but I won’t–we’re going to show you.
“You know what’s on this ballot? Every amendment, and there are 11 of them, and they are verbatim. They’re written out verbatim. So you get to read all the legalese. There’s a number of articles just coming out. Supervisors of election are saying this is the longest ballot they can recall in history, that voters are going to be very fatigued. They say it will take 30 minutes to go through the ballot. In some counties the ballot will be four pages long because of the length of these provisions. You will not believe it. If you go to our supervisor’s website, you know the sample ballots, there’s a link on sample ballots. Just take a look at it. It is mind-numbing. So: definitely, definitely, you, and you tell your friends, the people you care about, you tell them, exercise either early voting or absentee, or spend a lot of time researching so on election day when they go, they’ll have some capability of being able to go through those issues and decide.”
Framed around the 225th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution, Hadeed’s talk began with the founders and galloped through two and a quarter centuries of constitutional law, from the celebrated enmity between Thomas Jefferson and John Marshal–the most influential chief justice in the history of the court–down to the battle over Obamacare and Chief Justice John Roberts’s surprise vote with the liberal wing of the court. Roberts was an appointee of President George W. Bush in 2005, and until this year had never been the swing vote with the liberal wing. “He was trying to protect the integrity of the court,” Hadeed said, citing other analysts’ theory. “I don’t dismiss it. I think that’s very likely.”
But he had been preaching to the choir, and the audience knew it. One member of the audience told him as much at the end of the talk. “To me what we stand for no longer exists and I’m not sure how we get it back,” the man, who was carrying a vehemently anti-government book, said. The man was concerned that younger people, who vote far less than older ones, will be paying the price. “When I leave this room, I honestly don’t know where to go,” the man told Hadeed.
“I think we can get it back,” Hadeed said, and he pointed to the George Washington quote he’d used to end his talk moments earlier: “A primary object of such a national institution,” Washington had told Congress in his last of what has come to be known as the State of the Union address, “should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic what species of knowledge can be equally important and what duty more pressing on its legislature than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”