Saturday, February 24, 2018
News Roundup

Florida GOP's opposition to justices plays ugly politics

So the Republican Party of Florida is taking aim at our state Supreme Court, specifically at three sitting justices who have apparently displeased the GOP.

And this one's ugly, putting politics precisely where politics does not belong.

The party's unusual decision to put its considerable muscle into opposing merit retention for Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince on the November ballot is particularly ugly if you believe in the quaint notion of judicial independence.

You know — the idea that judges should be free to do a seriously important job based on knowledge, fairness and the law and without fear of political backlash.

And it's especially ugly when it starts to look like a thinly veiled attempt to stack the courts and fire a shot across the bow of judges who dare to think for themselves.

For perspective, I call someone with chops both judicial and political: Tampa's own Fred Karl, whose resume may be longer than the November ballot itself.

In the 1970s, Karl was a Florida Supreme Court justice himself, notably the last one to have to run in a traditional vote-for-me-not-the-other-guy election before we went to the wiser system of merit retention. Karl was also a state legislator and a respected public official in an assortment of roles who later came out of retirement now and again to lend a steady hand when needed.

"It destroys the integrity of the court," Karl, now 88, says of this latest.

He knows the potential peril of mixing politics with picking judges. He limited campaign contributions from lawyers to $100 to avoid any perception of favorable treatment — and had an offer from one who represented parimutuel interests to "underwrite" his entire campaign.

For the highest level judges in our state, we switched to a process in which justices are appointed by the governor and then appear on the ballot every six years for you to mark yes or no on whether they should remain on the job. These justices hear serious cases, death penalties among them, and merit retention is all about keeping the job free of political wind-testing, influence and corruption.

"You've got to have independence on the court," Karl says.

Now the state Republican party is full-bore opposing the retention of the three for what the party sees as activist views. If you doubt the politics of this, know that a conservative group affiliated with the Koch brothers is running TV ads against them, too.

But here's the thing: By definition, every judicial ruling leaves one side unhappy. And yes, it's every individual voter's right to check "no."

"An organized party or a substantial group — it takes on a different tone," Karl says.

If you are a cynical sort (me), you see dark motives afoot. Because if these three go, Republican Gov. Rick Scott picks the next three for you.

For the record, judges — federal ones in particular — have not been especially kind to the governor on issues like restrictions on voter registration efforts. Of course the Republican Party has the right to throw its political weight where it pleases, no matter the motive, and even in a place politics does not belong.

We'll know come November whether Florida voters will look to our history — and to respected, old school public servants like Karl — and see this for the ugly politics it is.

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