Friday, June 22, 2018
News Roundup

Florida Supreme Court justices fight back to retain seats

TALLAHASSEE — The host committee for the campaign fundraiser at the Doubletree Hotel here in June included former Gov. Reubin Askew, five former Supreme Court justices and some of Florida's most prominent lawyers and lobbyists.

But unlike most Tallahassee political gatherings, the beneficiaries were not politicians. They were three justices of the Florida Supreme Court: R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince, who each face yes or no votes in next month's statewide merit retention election.

The justices have had to leap into playing politics in response to what has become the most politically charged merit retention election in state history. They are fighting to fend off attacks from several conservative groups who want them booted from the high court's bench.

In Florida, tea party groups and the Republican Party of Florida are targeting justices, with one conservative group even financing television ads.

To combat the attacks, the justices have hired political consultants, created websites and established political committees to raise money. Their supporters have raised at least $330,000 for each justice — more than most candidates running for the state House.

The once sleepy, nonpartisan merit retention campaigns are now expensive political battles.

"We had to speak out and educate, otherwise the attacks would go unanswered,'' Quince explained to voters at a forum at Florida State University College of Law on Friday.

Politicians can defend themselves against criticism, but the judicial canons in Florida prohibit justices from soliciting donations, and they often cannot talk about the cases for which they are being condemned.

"It's like having two hands tied behind your back and one leg,'' said Pariente, a 15-year veteran of the court. "We're not politicians. All we can promise to do is be fair and impartial."

To do their talking and raise their money, the justices have created "Committees of Responsible Persons." For the first time ever, a 527 group — a tax-exempt political organization — has also been formed to run television ads in their defense.

Republican leaders say they are angry with what they contend are political rulings from the high court. In the last two years, the court has rejected several ballot amendments drafted by the Republican-led Legislature and overturned a handful of controversial laws. If the three justices are removed, Republican Gov. Rick Scott would have the opportunity to select replacements.

"This is a battle of ideas, a different world view,'' said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

The party's executive committee voted unanimously last month to oppose the justices after remaining silent in every merit retention election since the system was established in 1976.

"It is a reflection of frustration,'' Curry said. "People want their voice to be heard and they feel like it hasn't been heard for too many years."

How many resources the party will devote to defeating the justices is still unknown. Curry said his focus is on the slate of Republican candidates, not on steering money into the merit retention campaign. But the party's slate card will include a recommendation for voters to oppose Lewis, Pariente and Quince.

Other groups have announced that they, too, will actively push for the justices' defeat. The conservative Americans for Prosperity group has reserved a significant amount of time on television stations across the state, according to the Federal Communications Commission. It can use the time on ads for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Connie Mack IV or run ads against the justices.

Another tea party-affiliated group, Restore Justice 2012, has been preparing a campaign against the justices and last week announced it also plans to run television ads.

State Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith said his party "will not take a position" in the merit retention race because, he said, politicizing the judiciary will weaken its independence.

Two unions, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Florida Professional Fire Fighters, announced they will work to support the justices as a pushback against the GOP campaign. And the political committee formed to support the justices, Defend Justice From Politics, plans to run television ads in Miami, Tampa and Orlando.

It all makes for the most politicized merit retention race. In 1976, voters approved a constitutional amendment to switch from electing high court justices to a merit retention and selection system.

The idea then was to take politics out of the judiciary after a series of scandals involving justices who were returning favors to campaign supporters. One justice abruptly retired after being caught on a jaunt to Las Vegas. Two justices were accused of fixing cases in lower courts, and another justice was charged with destroying evidence by shedding a document and flushing it down a toilet.

Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges are now required to go through a rigorous selection process to be appointed to the court and then, every six years, come before voters in nonpartisan elections. They don't have opponents, but voters check yes or no on whether they remain qualified to stay on the bench.

No justice has been rejected in that way, but another process, the Judicial Qualifications Commission, has removed judges deemed corrupt.

That's a sign that the judicial selection process is working, said Lewis, a 13-year veteran of the court. The merit retention system is a fail-safe "if you get someone in office who is not performing as you thought they would, has become corrupt and is doing things they ought not be doing," he said.

But the move toward turning judicial elections into ideological tests will send Florida down a dangerous path, the justices say.

"The merit selection and retention process was the remedy to remove the partisan political corruption that flows,'' Lewis said at the FSU forum. "They are trying to remove the remedy to go back to the illness that plagued Florida."

Quince worries that nonpartisan county and circuit courts could be the next target.

"We believe in a system of fair and impartial judges not beholden to any political party,'' she said.

Lewis, Pariente and Quince have been on the ballot twice before — in 2000 and 2006 — and each time received between 67 and 71 percent of the vote.

Until now, they had never had to raise money or hire campaign consultants. They each loaned themselves $2,500 in 2000 and spent it on a public relations company.

This year, they didn't want to take any chances when they saw what happened to Florida Justices Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry in 2010. Restore Justice, a conservative tea party-affiliated group, ran a low-budget, last-minute campaign to oppose them and successfully lowered the number of votes they received.

Lewis said he has no regrets about fighting back.

"If our judicial officers do not care enough about our system of justice, to inform the public as to how it's structured and why, then I'm not sure we deserve to be here,'' he said. "If not us, then who?"

Comments
Romano: You better hope I’m wrong about flood insurance

Romano: You better hope I’m wrong about flood insurance

Chances are, I’ll go down as the Boy Who Cried Flood.You might have noticed, I’ve been shouting about the imminent calamity of flood waters for quite a few years now. If I wasn’t trying to frighten you into buying flood insurance, I was worrying you ...
Updated: 7 minutes ago
Six candidates waltz into their seats as qualifying ends. The rest still have a fight

Six candidates waltz into their seats as qualifying ends. The rest still have a fight

Six local candidates across Tampa Bay — all county commissioners and city council members — effectively won their elections Friday by default: No one ran against them.The rest still have a fight.Some will square off in an August 28 primary. Others wi...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
Delta bans pit bulls as service dogs, sparks backlash

Delta bans pit bulls as service dogs, sparks backlash

ATLANTA — Delta Air Lines says it’s no longer allowing passengers to fly with "pit bull type" dogs as service or support animals, a policy that’s being met with criticism by groups that train service dogs and the people who use them.The Atlanta-based...
Updated: 15 minutes ago
Coal and gas hold onto their share of electricity production, despite massive push for renewables

Coal and gas hold onto their share of electricity production, despite massive push for renewables

Here’s an intriguing set of facts: Coal produces the same percentage of the world’s electricity as 20 years ago. Oil and gas remain about level, too.Same for nonfossil fuel sources. In other words, the massive push towards renewables over the past co...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Tampa boy, 14, shot on bike, police asking for help

Tampa boy, 14, shot on bike, police asking for help

TAMPA — De’Nico Thomas, 14, isn’t a bad kid, police say, but he was the victim of a terrible shooting. The boy had played video games with a friend on Wednesday night and was likely bicycling home, according to police, when someone fired a gun, criti...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Brink: Why have Florida’s working-age men left the labor market in droves

Brink: Why have Florida’s working-age men left the labor market in droves

A cancer lurks within Florida’s otherwise rosy job numbers, one that’s been called a quiet catastrophe and an intractable time bomb.Too many men between the ages of 25 and 54 have stopped working.Economists call those the prime-age years. Incomes gen...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Lightning re-signs backup goalie Louis Domingue to 2-year deal

Lightning re-signs backup goalie Louis Domingue to 2-year deal

The Lightning has re-signed one of its restricted free agents in backup goalie Louis Domingue, who will be back with Tampa Bay on a two-year deal worth $2.3 million.Domingue, 26, was acquired from Arizona in November after he had posted a 4.33 goals-...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Lightning names ex-player Jeff Halpern as new assistant coach

Lightning names ex-player Jeff Halpern as new assistant coach

The Lightning has filled one of the openings on Jon Cooper's coaching staff, announcing Friday  that former Tampa Bay forward Jeff Halpern has been hired as an assistant coach.Halpern, 42, has spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the ...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Updated: 1 hour ago
Lane Kiffin, FAU agree to contract extension through 2027

Lane Kiffin, FAU agree to contract extension through 2027

Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic have agreed to a contract extension that would keep one of college football's most controversial coaches in Boca Raton through the 2027 season, the Owls announced Friday."Obviously, this came about because of the succ...
Updated: 1 hour ago