TALLAHASSEE — When the Republican Party of Florida launched its "grass roots" offensive against the three justices of the Florida Supreme Court, it unleashed a sleeping giant.
The state's legal community galvanized in defense of the justices and opened its wallets. According to reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections and the IRS, lawyers are on track to raise $4 million to defend the justices in their bid to be remain on the court in the November retention campaign.
The list of campaign contributions is a who's who of elite law firms in Florida, including top lawyers who are politically connected with both parties. The three justices, R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, also will have collectively raised another $1.5 million in their individual campaign accounts.
The $5.5 million war chest shatters any previous records for a judicial campaign in Florida. This time, in the span of three weeks, dozens of law firms ponied up checks as large as $100,000 to an electioneering and communications organization set up to defend the justices. The organization, called Defend Justice from Politics, used the cash to aggressively pay for mailers, robocalls, ads on social media and four to six weeks of television ads in the state's largest media markets.
Supporters are predicting victory.
"It's over," said Neal Roth, a Miami trial lawyer who has quietly coordinated the campaign to defend the justices. He predicts the justices are going to win the 50 percent plus one margin to be retained on the bench another six years.
Slade O'Brien, Florida director for Americans For Prosperity, the Koch brothers-affiliated group that has opposed retention of the justices, said that whatever the outcome, he is satisfied with the campaign because it brought more focus to the performance of the justices.
"This was never about defeating three justices,'' he told the Times/Herald. "It was about raising the level of attention to the court."
Despite fears by the justices and their supporters, the anti-retention campaign did not materialize in any meaningful way. Americans for Prosperity spent about $155,000, including a $50,000 television ad buy, O'Brien said.
Restore Justice 2012, the Orlando-based conservative group that has accused the three justices of judicial activism, raised less than $70,000, nearly all of it from Miami physician Allan I. Jacob.
Nearly all of the money raised by the Defend Justices from Politics has been raised since September, when the Republican Party of Florida's executive committee took a vote to officially oppose the retention of the justices.
It was the first time in 40 years a political party had gotten involved in a merit retention vote in Florida and it opened the door for Gov. Rick Scott, who remains unpopular with most Floridians, to appoint their successors.
"When they did that, my job of fundraising became much easier,'' Roth said.
Combined with the tightening of the presidential race in Florida and the subsequent shift in resources by Americans for Prosperity on behalf of Republican Mitt Romney, Roth said the justices' supporters had "the reversal of a perfect storm.''
Money not only came from lawyers, it came from the police and firefighters unions — $15,000 from each. Another $300,000 came from America Votes, the Democrat-leaning advocacy group based in Washington. The Orlando-based Florida Watch Action, a group that says it advocates for laid off teachers, state workers, unions and others who want to defeat Scott, anted up $235,000.
"It's staggering,'' said Jesse Phillips, director of Restore Justice 2012. The supporters of the justices "have been the ones who have been complaining about money compromising the court system so it's incredibly hypocritical."
Brian Burgess, spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, seized on the irony that the group organized to defend the Supreme Court from politics had become a master of politics.
"Their funding simply proves they are very political and that special interests are investing heavily to keep them around,'' Burgess said. He said that the special interests he is referring to is the trial lawyers.
Roth said that if the Republican Party had not gotten involved the surge of contributions also may not have happened. He and others warned that the party's involvement might be the first piece of a last-minute stealth campaign from outside conservative groups to defeat the justices, as it happened in 2010 when three justices were defeated in Iowa.
"We were absolutely prepared for that to happen,'' Roth said, adding that when it didn't materialize, "we didn't pull back."