TALLAHASSEE — Despite an unprecedented campaign against them, three Florida Supreme Court justices up for merit retention easily were returned to the bench.
Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince withstood opposition from a coalition of conservative groups, including the Republican Party of Florida, Americans for Prosperity and tea party activists.
The active campaigning against the justices increased the profile of this year's merit retention vote. But the outcome was about the same as in other years, with all three justices receiving about two-thirds of the vote, with most votes counted.
They only needed a simple majority to keep their jobs for an additional six years.
"We cannot permit a judicial decision to be based on what may be politically popular," Lewis said Tuesday night. "We are in danger of losing our democracy if we have to become worried about the partisan political views."
Lewis, 64, was appointed to the court in 1999 by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. He was born into a West Virginian coal-mining family and keeps artifacts from the family business on his work desk.
Chiles also appointed Pariente, now 63, to the court in 1997. She made headlines in 2003 when she shared her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer and appeared at oral arguments with a shaved head.
Quince was jointly appointed to the court in 1999 by Chiles and Gov. Jeb Bush. The 64-year-old is the first African-American woman to serve on the seven-member high court.
"I always try to see the positive in every situation and this has reaffirmed that Florida voters want a judicial branch that is fair and impartial and not subject to partisan politics," Pariente said.
State law prohibited the justices from soliciting donations or talking about their rulings on cases that have garnered criticism during this election season. But the legal community, led by the Florida Bar, came to their aid.
Groups raised almost $5 million to defend the justices, including contributions to their individual accounts as well as an organization that was created on their behalf called Defend Justice from Politics. The money paid for websites, political consultants and TV advertisements.
The opposition campaign paled in comparison. Restore Justice 2012 was formed to lead the campaign against the three justices but raised less than $100,000. The organization highlighted controversial court rulings and insisted all three justices were too liberal.
Jesse Phillips, president of Restore Justice 2012, said he doesn't consider the campaign a failure even if it was ultimately unsuccessful. He noted that the portion of people marking their ballots on the justices questions, instead of leaving them blank, seemed to be up this year. And even with a multimillion dollar campaign, the justices seemed to get the same level of support as in past merit retention votes, he noted.
"We don't have any regrets," Phillips said. "I think we waged a successful campaign. Our goal was always to get the word out with the grass roots."
Although they won handily, there was no victory party for the justices Tuesday night. Each was at his or her respective home preparing for oral arguments scheduled before the court today.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.