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Florida Supreme Court justice calls politics a threat to legal system

TAMPA — Another Florida Supreme Court justice targeted by the Republican Party in this year's merit retention election pleaded with Tampa attorneys Friday to help keep partisan politics out of the judiciary.

"No fair, impartial court means no justice, no freedom," said Justice Peggy Quince, speaking to the Young Lawyers Division of the Hillsborough County Bar Association.

It's the latest direct pitch to Tampa lawyers for support from a state Supreme Court justice since the state GOP's executive board announced in September it opposed three justices up for merit retention on the Nov. 6 ballot. Until now, a political party has never formally involved itself in merit retention since it was adopted in the 1970s to reform a corrupt judiciary.

But in this election Justices Quince, R. Fred Lewis and Barbara Pariente are all opposed by the Republican Party of Florida because of their "activist" and liberal views.

Three weeks ago, Lewis told the Hillsborough Bar Association that the election "is the most stressful time I've ever experienced in my life. There is an entire branch of government to protect and defend. We cannot sacrifice fairness and impartiality and the court system to political whims."

On Friday, Quince, who has passed merit retention twice, reminded lawyers that the process was made a part of the state constitution in 1976 after two justices resigned amid a corruption scandal.

"Merit retention is not about whether you agree with every decision," she said. "If that was the case, we'd be constantly changing judges. The real criteria are character, fitness and demeanor."

Quince said she feared politicization could work its way through the judiciary down to the local trial courts.

"This is about whether the judiciary will survive."

Supporters and opponents of the justices have begun airing television ads — another first in the history of merit retention.

John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

Florida Supreme Court justice calls politics a threat to legal system 10/12/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 9:14pm]

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