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Three Florida Supreme Court Justices Fire Back at Attempted Conservative Putsch

| October 9, 2012

The robes strike back. (Jason Famularo)

Three justices of the Florida Supreme Court used a forum at Florida State University to hit back at their critics, while campaign filings showed the trio had raised more than $1 million for their electoral defense.

Speaking to an audience at the FSU College of Law comprised mostly of students, Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince pushed back against a campaign to push them off the bench that has spread from a conservative grass-roots uprising to a denouncing of the three by the Republican Party of Florida.

The justices said that the effort to throw them off the court in this November’s merit retention elections, in which the justices don’t face opposition but have to get the approval of a majority of voters, was a challenge to the state’s judicial branch itself.

“We do not want and we should not want to go back to a system where judges are beholden to anyone — no political party, no group, no individual,” Quince said.

Pariente stressed the same theme: That the bid by the group Restore Justice 2012 and other opponents to push the justices off the court would help to dismantle some of the reforms passed after a series of scandals shook the high court in the 1970s.

“What we see is that it is not about just the three of us, but it is about our system of a fair and impartial judiciary,” she said.

Lewis, who at times choked back tears when talking about his respect for the court and his role as a judge, recalled working for then-Circuit Court Judge Shelby Highsmith’s unsuccessful campaign for the Supreme Court. Lewis said he and Highsmith were shocked at the corruption in the race.

“Floridians deserve better,” Lewis said. “We ought not allow it to go back to those days.”

Opponents have sought to cast the three, who often serve as the backbone of the court’s left-of-center majority, as activist judges who are out of touch with the state’s voters. Supporters have insisted that the justices have simply followed the law and that the new effort is an attempt to mold a court less likely to thwart Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Recently, the Republican Party of Florida’s executive board got into the fight, upbraiding the justices for their votes in a 2003 appeal by Joe Nixon, who was convicted in the 1984 murder of Jeanne Bickner in Leon County. In that ruling, the court found that Nixon’s lawyer erred in essentially conceding his guilt during the trial without getting a statement of approval from Nixon. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision.

“These three justices voted to set aside the death penalty for a man convicted of tying a woman to a tree with jumper cables and setting her on fire,” party spokeswoman Kristen McDonald said when the state GOP announced it was backing the effort to remove the justices.

But Lewis told reporters after the event that he ruled against one of Nixon’s earlier appeals in 2000.

“So I guess I should take it that their attack is actually a compliment,” he said.

Lewis did concur in the majority opinion in the 2003 appeal, but wrote in a separate concurring opinion that he felt bound by the court’s earlier ruling even though he thought the result was “legally and logically incorrect.”

Lewis added to reporters that his colleagues shouldn’t be attacked for the decision. And he criticized the RPOF for jumping into the fray.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “And I would have been disappointed if the Democratic Party had come out one way or another. I would have been disappointed if the Green Party [had gotten involved]. I’m disappointed that we are in an era where partisan politics, there’s an attempt to inject that into nonpartisan matters.”

Meanwhile, as the justices began fighting back harder by speaking out publicly, figures showed the committees working to retain the justices were also back on the fundraising path. After raising little money in July and August, the justices collected a combined total of $132,002 between Sept. 15 and Sept. 28, newly filed reports show.

Pariente’s committee raised $51,796, Quince’s raised $40,531, and Lewis’ raised $39,675 during the period.

The justices collected large amounts of money during the first half of the year before fund-raising dropped off in July. In all, the justices have collected about $1.15 million, with Pariente topping $404,000 and Quince and Lewis each at about $373,000.

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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4 Responses for “Three Florida Supreme Court Justices Fire Back at Attempted Conservative Putsch”

  1. Alex says:

    I am in agreement with this statement. “We do not want and we should not want to go back to a system where judges are beholden to anyone — no political party, no group, no individual,” Quince said. So I will vote for retention. A vote for retention is a vote to keep dirty politics out of the courtrooms.

  2. Geezer says:

    Review all the amendments BEFORE you head out to the polls.
    There’s some “GOTCHAS” there for less-than-informed people.

    Never vote blindly. If in doubt leave it blank – don’t guess.

    • Geezer says:

      And yes, vote to retain these three quality human-beings.
      I read their bio’s and came away impressed.

      Justice R. Fred Lewis is particularly likeable. Son of a coal miner.
      This man came from humble surroundings and attained the title of Justice.

  3. Jim Neuenfeldt says:

    These 3 judges have raised 1.05 million…. ( I also believe who they are or who they appointed by are irrelevant it could be any 3 names.. Just this time it is them)
    They are selected from a pool selected by a panel of Lawyers called the Judicial Selection Committee….
    3 from the Florida Bar, 3 from the Governor, and then those 6 select 3 more from the bar.
    Then they qualify a panel or group, minimum of 3 which is sent back to Governor and he appoints 1.

    A quick look at the money raised, and the selection method, quickly shows a reasonable person, that politics is very much at play in these appointments. If the judge was not politically affiliated, what chance do you think they have of being appointed to the qualified list or an appointment from the governor?

    So for my opinion, I don’t think what we changed took politics out of the Supreme Court at all.. It just changed it from voters selecting the judges, to already elected people making the choice for us. The only place left in the judicial system for non lawyers is to either be a victim, or a defendant, and this choice about retention of the judges.

    A quick look at defendants, and their prior histories shows an utter failure in the criminal justice system.
    We have done countless studies an the causes, and effects of criminal behavior, and a glaring fact is the one where offenders have repeated many many times before the system looks at them seriously. I am all for 2nd, and maybe even 3rd chances, however….. that doesn’t include the 20 times before anything other than probation and fines are levied. That system doesn’t work either. We look at how government operates and the laws they enact for themselves and wonder WHY?. Mostly it is because the courts do not hold them accountable or make sure their processes are legal, and I expect them to do that.

    It is in my opinion past time to hold these appointees accountable for the decisions they make and the rules they follow. They are Judges, not God’s, and should not be political affiliates or cronies of other politicians. They should have a sound ruling and background in law. They should demonstrate always a partiality to fairness, and doing the right thing, not what their buddies want.

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