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Republican lawmakers, but only a few, speak out against politicizing justice retention vote

What if they've already won?

What if those who want to remake the Florida Supreme Court have already had an impact on future court decisions by politicizing the process of merit retention?

What if this shot across the bow is enough?

"It's a really good question,'' said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. "Just the thought that this can happen could have a chilling effect.

"What I'm hoping is that not only does this backfire, but it sends a message that you can spend a lot of money and still lose this battle. Because it's not just Florida. This is becoming a national issue. Florida is like a test case. And we need to send the message that we don't like the idea of blurring the lines between politics and the judiciary.''

You would like to believe it's not an issue. That someone wearing the robes of a Supreme Court justice would be impervious to the potential fallout of a politically sensitive case.

But then you would also have to suspend your belief in human nature.

Because the truth is certain Supreme Court justices have been under siege in Florida the past two years.

A rather loosely organized effort to vote out Jorge Labarga and James Perry failed in 2010, but it also resulted in the lowest vote total for any Supreme Court justice since the merit retention system was put in place in the 1970s.

That was followed by Gov. Rick Scott asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate three judges for the possible crime of using state employees to help them complete the paperwork to apply for retention this summer. When handed the investigation, the state attorney basically called it a waste of time.

And now the Republican Party of Florida, with the conservative activist Koch brothers, are waging an all-out war against the same three justices — Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince — who are up for retention in next month's election.

"Has part of the Republican Party's ambition already been accomplished by carrying it this far?'' asked Tampa attorney Lee D. Gunn IV, who is taking part in a forum on merit retention held by the St. Petersburg Bar Association on Thursday.

"I would hope that a justice wouldn't be impacted by politics. But I don't even want them to have a scintilla of a thought in the backs of their minds. Can you imagine them worrying, 'Hey I'm up for merit retention this year,' while deciding a case?''

Now it is possible the point will be moot in Florida. There are no justices up for retention in 2014, and Lewis, Pariente, Quince and James Perry are all nearing retirement age.

It won't be until Labarga is up for retention in 2016 that one of the targeted justices will again be at risk. But who's to say hyper-partisan politics won't keep supposedly conservative justices from venturing outside the box on any given issue?

This is why the term-limited Dockery was moved to release a letter last week — along with Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, and Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah — opposing the Republican Party's decision to oppose the retention of the three judges.

Dockery was hoping her statement would spur other Republicans to come forward, but she acknowledged it will be hard for legislators still in office to buck party leadership.

While the party has called this a grass roots effort, Dockery said it doesn't seem likely that a decision was made without the blessing of Gov. Scott.

"Who has the most to gain here?'' she said. "You have a sitting governor who is not particularly popular and has initiated or gone along with quite a bit of legislation that has been challenged in court, and now he might have a chance to name three new justices?''

Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi have given the impression they are neutral on the topic, which would seem to indicate they don't have a problem with partisan politics in the judicial branch. Ditto for the state's top Republican legislators who have remained mum.

And maybe that's a smart move.

Because if there's a possibility that all of this political maneuvering might intimidate some present and future justices, there is a flip side as well.

If Pariente, Lewis and Quince are retained in November, they will have nothing to lose in their final six-year term before retirement.

Republican lawmakers, but only a few, speak out against politicizing justice retention vote 10/15/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 15, 2012 10:49pm]
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