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Supreme screwup almost snares 3 justices

TALLAHASSEE — It was six minutes after 10 a.m. on Friday morning and, Dan Stengle recalls, "my life passed before my eyes."

The legal counsel for the merit retention campaigns of state Supreme Court Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince had just been told by the justices' campaign treasurer that the three justices hadn't completed all the paperwork needed to run in their merit retention election on the November ballot.

To make matters worse, the justices were just minutes into a two-hour redistricting hearing — the only issue since Bush vs. Gore on which the court has scheduled a two-hour hearing. And the deadline to file was noon.

Stengle, whose law office is five blocks from the Supreme Court building in the Tallahassee, called the courthouse, then ran over to it.

He was ushered into the office of Lisa Goodner, the state courts administrator, whose office is right next to the courtroom. She had received the same phone call, from the secretary of state's office: The justices hadn't finished their paperwork and the deadline was approaching, they told her.

"Someone contacted me and said the record reflects, at this point, that the justices haven't qualified,'' Goodner recalled. She said she appreciated the heads up but, "it's not my responsibility to say that they're qualified."

Stengle asked Goodner if she could get the justices' attention. Goodner said she asked Clerk of Court Thomas D. Hall to write a note to Chief Justice Charles Canady.

Hall then slipped the note to Canady. "Justice Canady, Lisa Goodner has emergency she needs to discuss with BJP, RFL, PAQ (the initials for the three justices). You need to take break after first hour. Tom."

Canady obliged.

The court took a break halfway through deliberations. Minutes stretched into more than an hour.

Meanwhile, the justices were assembled in Goodner's office, where Stengle addressed them.

Although the justices had signed dozens of pages of paperwork already — their appointment of treasurer, opening of a campaign account, certification of active opposition and campaign financial disclosure reports — Stengle and the treasurer had overlooked two crucial forms: their qualifying oath and their financial disclosure forms.

The financial disclosures, normally due in June, must also be completed for anyone on the ballot at the time of qualifying.

"It was a sad comedy of errors, and I take full responsibility for my part in it,'' Stengle said Tuesday. "I wish it hadn't happened."

The justices completed the forms, had them notarized by a member of Goodner's staff and filed them by the noon deadline. "I was relieved they were actually on the bench,'' he said. "They could have been scattered all over.''

He dismisses claims by the opponents to the justices that they improperly used state staff to complete the forms.

"The disclosure form is something that everyone who holds a constitutional office in Florida is required to file each year — including appellate judges — whether or not they are running for office,'' Stengle said in a statement issued to reporters Tuesday. "Each of the justices has their prior disclosure forms on file. These required filings are not electioneering communications."

Supreme screwup almost snares 3 justices 04/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 11:27pm]
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