The Republican Party of Florida injected itself into a heated battle over the future of the state Supreme Court on Friday, issuing a brief statement saying the GOP opposes three justices who form the backbone of the court’s left-of-center majority.
The paragraph-long statement said the party’s executive board unanimously voted this week to oppose Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince in November’s retention elections. The justices do not face opponents, but must get the support of a majority of Floridians to hold onto their posts.
“While the collective evidence of judicial activism amassed by these three individuals is extensive, there is one egregious example that all Florida voters should bear in mind when they go to the polls on election day,” said the statement, issued by RPOF spokeswoman Kristen McDonald. “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.”
McDonald appeared to be referring to the case of Joe Nixon, who was convicted in the 1984 murder of Jeanne Bickner in Leon County. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nixon in 2003 during one of several appeals, finding that his lawyer erred in essentially conceding Nixon’s guilt during the trial without a getting a statement of approval from Nixon. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision.
The statement did not say when, precisely, the RPOF board held its vote.
Supporters of the trio blasted the GOP move, portraying it as an effort by Republicans to seize control of the courts. If the justices get defeated, successors would be selected by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican.
“The Legislature wants to politicize the court so that it is no longer independent but the handmaiden of the Republican Legislature,” said Dick Batchelor, a former lawmaker with Defend Justice from Politics.
Groups like Batchelor’s have rallied to the justices’ side since an organization called Restore Justice 2012 began an effort to push Lewis, Pariente and Quince off the court. No sitting Supreme Court justice has ever lost a retention election.
Restore Justice and other groups say that the jurists are activist judges who have overstepped their power. But supporters of the judges say they have followed the law and that the merit retention elections are meant to remove justices for misconduct, not because of judicial philosophy.
“The announcement that the Republican Party is engaged in this effort would shock those wonderful Republican statesmen who helped create the merit selection and merit retention processes,” said Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former lawmaker and former president of the American Bar Association. “Surely we do not want to go back to the broken past.”
Meanwhile, as they face opposition, the three justices curtailed fund-raising this summer for their merit-retention campaigns, according to state campaign finance records.
Lewis, Pariente and Quince raised a combined $40,758 between Aug. 10 and Sept. 14, reports filed Friday show. Since July 7, they have raised a combined $92,693.
Those totals are dramatically different from the first half of the year, when each of the justices raised about $300,000. Some conservatives have long said they would try to defeat the justices during merit-retention elections in November, but the effort got a potentially huge boost Friday when the state GOP announced its executive board had unanimously voted to oppose the justices — describing them as “liberals” who had been involved in extensive “judicial activism.”
While it was not immediately clear how aggressive the party will be in trying to oust the justices, Friday’s announcement raised the profile of the usually sleepy merit-retention elections and could send a signal to Republican voters who have long complained about what they perceive as liberal judges.
If the justices lose merit-retention elections, Republican Gov. Rick Scott would appoint replacements. Lewis and Pariente were appointed to the court by former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, while Quince was a joint appointment by Chiles and former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
Campaign-finance records show that the justices have received most of their contributions from attorneys and law firms. Lewis has raised a total of $333,460, Pariente has raised $352,920, and Quince has raised $332,843 — with each reporting Friday they had slightly more than half of those amounts still on hand.
While the state GOP opposes their retention, the justices have received at least some support from well-known Republicans or conservatives. As an example, former Justice Raoul Cantero, a Bush appointee to court, has been a prominent supporter. As another example, Ballard Partners, a high-powered Republican lobbying firm, contributed $500 to each of the justices’ campaigns in June, the records show.
Before the Republican Party announcement Friday, an Orlando-based organization called Restore Justice, Inc., had been the primary voice of opposition to the justices. During the first half of the year, Restore Justice received almost all of its contributions from South Florida physician Allan Jacob, who chipped in $59,250, according to the group’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
In August, state records show, Restore Justice also filed in Florida as what is known as an “electioneering communications organization,” a type of group that can try to influence races by doing such things as running ads. The so-called ECO raised $1,075 between Aug. 13 and Sept. 14.
Justices must come up for merit-retention votes every six years, but the elections usually draw little attention. In 2006, Lewis, Pariente and Quince each received more than 67 percent of the vote.
But Florida conservatives could be trying to follow the lead of Iowa, where voters in 2010 removed three justices who had supported legalizing gay marriage in the state. An attempt is underway to try to oust another Iowa justice in November’s elections.
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida