Saturday, February 24, 2018
Editorials

Protect judicial independence, vote 'yes' on justices

The election ballot is long, stuffed with choices for president, U.S. Senate and Congress on down to the Legislature and county offices. It will be tempting to vote only in a handful of high-profile races and skip the rest to save time. But that would be a mistake with unintended consequences, particularly on the merit retention of three Florida Supreme Court justices. Voters should make it a point to vote "yes" to retain each of the justices and ensure the independence of the state's highest court.

The justices are in the middle of a political fight aimed at pressuring the court to make judgments based on politics and public opinion rather than an impartial reading of the law. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince are distinguished jurists who have served the state well with their intelligence, work ethic and sound judgment. Based on their job performance they should easily win merit retention. But well financed outside conservative groups along with the state Republican Party want voters to remove them because the groups don't like some of the opinions the justices have issued. Voting "yes" on merit retention will protect the independence of Florida's judiciary.

The merit retention process has insulated Florida's appellate courts from polarizing politics and corruption for decades. Voters amended the Florida Constitution in 1976 so that all appellate court judges and justices in the state would be appointed by the governor and stand for merit retention every six years, in case voters needed to remove the jurists for issues such as misconduct or incompetence. The change from elected to appointed justices was prompted by a corruption scandal uncovered in the early 1970s involving elected justices.

Until now, Florida's political parties were neutral on merit retention races. But this year the Republican Party opposes the merit retention of Lewis, Pariente and Quince. It's part of a larger national effort by conservative groups, partly funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, to plant right-wing justices on state supreme courts. If the effort succeeds here, Republican Gov. Rick Scott would be able to pack the seven-member court with three new conservative justices.

The reasons the Republican Party gives for its opposition are baseless. It claims there is "collective evidence of judicial activism" among the justices. But even an expert for a conservative legal group, the Federalist Society, says those accusations are unfounded. Constitutional law scholar Elizabeth Price Foley was commissioned by the Federalist Society to review the record by analyzing nine controversial cases since 2000. She found no pattern of unprincipled decision-making by any of the justices.

It's particularly important for voters not to skip the merit retention questions for justices and appellate judges. They will lose their jobs if more than half of the voters who vote on their question vote "no" — not half of the people who cast ballots. The most partisan Republicans intent on punishing the court won't skip these questions, so Florida's more moderate voters must make sure they don't, either. A "yes" vote on merit retention would keep three distinguished justices on Florida's high court and protect the judiciary's independence.

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