It's understandable why Gov. Rick Scott and his Republican allies have no love for the courts. After all, their batting average is pretty low in trying to overturn laws they don't like and defending their own extreme lawmaking. But the state Republican Party's unprecedented call for voters to remove three Florida Supreme Court justices is a frontal assault on the judicial branch for no reason other than political intimidation. Reasonable Republicans ought to speak out against this attack on the courts and support the nonpartisan merit retention process, and all Florida voters should stand up for an independent judiciary.
Supreme Court justices appear on the ballot every six years as part of the merit retention process, and voters cast a "yes" vote to retain them or a "no" vote to remove them. Three justices are on the November ballot: R. Fred Lewis and Barbara J. Pariente, who were appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles; and Peggy A. Quince, who was jointly appointed by Chiles and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. The merit retention process is about whether the justices are impartial, ethical and qualified — not about whether voters disagree with specific court opinions. There is absolutely no reason why these three justices should not be retained, so the Republican Party has made one up.
The state party cites a 2003 court opinion that ordered a new trial for a man who had been sentenced to death for a horrific 1984 murder, concluding that he had inadequate legal representation. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and overturned the state court's decision. Never mind that this case occurred before these three justices last appeared on the ballot. Republicans have selected it from among thousands of cases to fuel public outrage and serve as cover for their real complaints with the courts.
Hours after Scott took office last year, he signed an executive order seizing control of the state rulemaking process. The Florida Supreme Court ruled Scott "overstepped his constitutional authority and violated the separation of powers.'' Federal courts have ruled against Scott and the Legislature by upholding the Affordable Care Act and blocking random drug testing for state employees and drug tests for poor Floridians applying for welfare benefits. Courts have also overturned a ban on doctors asking patients about gun ownership and changes that made it harder to register new voters and cast early ballots. The Republican Party's opposition to the three state Supreme Court justices is an effort to intimidate them as they decide challenges to public pension changes and privatizing state prisons approved by the governor and Legislature.
There are indications that Scott and his allies at the Republican Party have less than full support from within the party's own ranks. Attorney General Pam Bondi refused to say Monday whether she supports the move, and legislative leaders such as incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, were not consulted beforehand. Their unwillingness to endorse the party's position says volumes, but all Republicans who recognize there really are three independent branches of government should be clear about where they stand.
It would make no difference if the justices all had been appointed by Republican governors and it was the Florida Democratic Party that was interfering with the merit retention process. Florida voters smartly adopted this system in 1976 to appoint rather than elect Supreme Court justices and appellate judges, and to have each of them face a merit retention vote every six years. Those reforms have served the state well, and voters should reject this heavy-handed effort to intimidate and politicize the court.