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  1. Opinion

In court threat, GOP hides behind silence

Published Sep. 29, 2012

It's a sad state of affairs when the disgraced former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida has more appreciation for an independent judiciary than the speaker of the Florida House. It's even worse that so many prominent Republicans are biting their tongues as their political party and its allies wage an unprecedented partisan assault on three Florida Supreme Court justices who are up for merit retention on the November ballot. This is no time for Floridians who respect the law and the courts to remain silent against a very real threat that seeks to corrupt the process for political gain.

Former state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer is awaiting trial on charges of stealing about $200,000 from the party through a secret fundraising company. But even Greer had the good sense to say last week that as the party chairman he would not have allowed the party to oppose the merit retention of Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince. At least he recognizes a partisan political power play and acknowledges the danger of allowing Gov. Rick Scott to pack the Supreme Court with three new justices if voters remove the well-qualified incumbents.

Contrast that clear thinking with the bellicose attacks on the court by departing House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican and a lawyer with no respect for the state Supreme Court, the Florida Bar or the judicial branch in general. Cannon contends it is "ludicrous" to be critical of the Republican Party for wading into the nonpartisan merit retention process. He misrepresents the purpose of merit retention and lashes out at the Florida Bar for trying to educate voters about the process. In fact, the merit retention process was approved by voters in 1976 to protect the court from corruption and political interference by ideologues such as Cannon.

It was the House speaker who was most upset that the court correctly removed three of the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendments from the 2010 ballot because they were so misleading. It was the House speaker, one of the most powerful men in state government, who wanted to add more justices to the seven-member court and then divide it into two courts. And when that plot failed, it was the House speaker who pushed to place on the November ballot Amendment 5, a dangerous attempt to give the Legislature more authority over the courts by requiring Senate confirmation of justices and granting state lawmakers a greater say over court rulemaking. No wonder Cannon, whose speakership was among the most ideologically driven in memory, sees nothing wrong with political parties calling for the ouster of justices who have ruled against them.

There are fair-minded Republicans who respect the courts and recognize the threat posed by politicizing the merit retention process. They include former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero and former state Sen. Alex Villalobos of Miami, who support the retention of the justices; and retired Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan, who wrote a letter to the Times. But their voices should be joined by other leading Republicans. Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville and incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel say they were not consulted before the state party acted. They are now statewide leaders, and that is simply not good enough. Attorney General Pam Bondi dodges the question. The governor's spokeswoman says Scott was not consulted, which defies logic.

And where is former Gov. Jeb Bush, who finds time to endorse legislative candidates and pontificate on public education but has remained silent on this attack on the courts? Bush's hands are not clean on politicizing the courts. It was his administration that won authority for governors to stack the judicial nominating commissions that select the finalists for judicial appointments. And it was Bush who appointed a political hack like Paul Hawkes, the disgraced former appellate judge who resigned rather than face judicial charges over the construction of a lavish Tallahassee courthouse dubbed the Taj Mahal.

This is a serious threat to the independence of the Florida Supreme Court. The state Republican Party chairman inaccurately claims the justices are individually raising campaign money when in fact they are prohibited by judicial canons from soliciting contributions themselves. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative nonprofit backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, is airing a misleading ad about the court's decision to keep off the ballot a poorly worded health care amendment. Now is the time for Florida leaders to educate the voters with facts about the importance of merit retention and an impartial judiciary — not to hide in silence as the misinformation spreads.

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