TALLAHASSEE — In this topsy-turvy political year, the first quarter state fundraising numbers produced another surprise.
The top fundraisers weren't politicians or elected officials. They were three of Florida's Supreme Court justices, who face merit retention in November and fear being targeted by opposition groups that can swoop in with last-minute campaigns attempting to oust them from the bench.
Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince each raised between $156,000 to $161,000 since they first opened their merit retention accounts in January, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Division of Elections late Tuesday.
While most of it was raised, predictably, from lawyers and law firms, it's an amount that when combined "ranks among the most ever for a retention race,'' said Dan Stengle, legal counsel for the justices' merit retention campaigns. Lewis raised $161,638, Quince raised $156,518 and Pariente raised $158,173.
By contrast, the first quarter fundraising returns produced lower than normal numbers for Florida's political parties, as legislators were forced into a self-imposed fundraising ban during an early legislative session, and Gov. Rick Scott steered cash to his political committee.
The Republican Party of Florida raised $2.9 million in the first fundraising quarter of the year, substantially down from the $7.4 million raised in the previous quarter when legislative leaders weren't bound by a legislative fundraising ban. By contrast, Scott raised $1.3 million for his "Let's Get to Work" committee in the period from Jan. 1 through March 31 alone.
The Florida Democratic Party raised $1.1 million for the quarter, down slightly from the $1.7 million raised for the preceding quarter.
The big money for Republicans came from the legislative issues conveniently punted to another year: bringing destination resort casinos to Florida, giving optometrists prescription powers and deciding which giant health insurers will compete for a piece of the Medicaid reform pie.
Fundraising for open House and Senate seats was also active, as candidates for many of the more than two dozen open seats collected cash unbridled by the fundraising ban. The biggest winners there: Monticello businessman Halsey Beshears, who reported raising $108,268 in his bid to win a largely rural House district that includes all or parts of 10 North Florida counties; and former Democratic Rep. Kevin Radar of West Palm Beach, who has announced to run against Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs of Boca Raton. Radar, who raised $72,205, also is eyeing the newly drawn minority access seat in Palm Beach County.
Those seats won't be final, however, until the Florida Supreme Court decides whether to approve the latest version of the Senate map, redrawn last month after the court rejected the first try for violating the new Fair Districts standards approved by voters in 2010.
But in an ironic twist, the judges, not the politicians, spent more time on the fundraising circuits.
Florida high court justices face merit retention votes every six years. Voters get a straight yes or no vote on retention. Each of the justices facing vote has faced it before. But, Stengle said, this time things are different.
"Our fair and impartial courts are increasingly being targeted by groups seeking to increase political influence over court rulings,'' he said. "The same group that waged a last-minute stealth campaign against two of our Florida Supreme Court justices in 2010 announced its intent to remove all three justices who will be on the ballot in November."
The announced opposition is from a group called Restore Justice 2012, a political committee run by Orlando tea party activist Jesse Phillips. He ran the unsuccessful campaign in 2010 to remove Supreme Court Justices Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry. The organization's website says it has the support of a number of other conservative groups.
Restore Justice's website claims "the Florida State Supreme Court has taken upon itself to decide matters lawfully left to voters to decide. They have disenfranchised every voter in the state on multiple occasions, and greatly overstepped their constitutional limitations, proving that they truly are one of the most activist courts in the nation."
Unlike politicians, Florida's justices are barred from soliciting funds themselves but must instead appoint a committee to handle all campaign finances. Contributions are limited to $500 per person and the justices are not allowed to endorse each other. They also must maintain separate campaign accounts, although they are allowed to coordinate and share campaign expenses.
Since the merit system was adopted in the 1970s, few justices have had to conduct campaigns.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com