The merit retention questions on Florida Supreme Court justices are generally routine and attract little attention, because the court is well-respected and has operated without scandal for decades. This year is different. This year, three justices are under an unprecedented political assault by the Republican Party of Florida and outside conservative groups that are upset with some of the court's decisions. Floridians should reject this attempt to intimidate and politicize the state's highest court, and they should retain Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince.
This is the most serious attempt to compromise the Supreme Court's independence since the corruption scandals of the early 1970s that resulted in the resignations of two justices and a reprimand of another. Following that political disgrace, voters in 1976 amended the state Constitution to provide that all justices — and judges on the district courts of appeal — be appointed by the governor rather than elected by the voters. Every six years, voters decide whether these justices and judges should be retained in a process called merit retention.
The justices are not running against each other, and they are not on the ballot because they did something wrong. Merit retention is an opportunity for voters to consider whether the justices should remain on the court and are ethical, impartial and qualified. It is not about voicing disagreement with some of the court's opinions, but that is exactly what the state Republican Party is doing in targeting these justices.
The state party points to a 2003 court opinion that ordered a new trial for a man who had been sentenced to death for a particularly gruesome 1984 murder. The issue hinged on whether the man's attorney acted appropriately and with his client's permission, and the U.S. Supreme Court reached a different conclusion and unanimously overturned the state court's decision. This case was clearly chosen out of thousands of others to inflame the passion of voters.
The reality is that Republicans have been unhappy with the court because it has served as an important check on the heavy handedness by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature. It ruled Scott overstepped his authority shortly after taking office last year by signing an executive order seizing control of the state rulemaking process. Republican lawmakers, particularly outgoing House Speaker Dean Cannon, were furious that the court removed three of the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendments for the 2010 ballot because they were misleading.
Persuading voters to remove the three justices on the November ballot would enable Scott to appoint the replacements and stack the court. President Franklin Roosevelt tried that in the 1930s with the U.S. Supreme Court. It did not work then, and it should not work in Florida now. These justices are well-qualified and there is no reason to remove them from the court.
The Florida Bar has polled its members about the Supreme Court justices since the first merit retention vote in 1978. More than 7,800 lawyers participated this time, and each justice won support for being retained by at least 89 percent. That's not even close.
Lewis, 64, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1998 by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, and he won 67 percent of the vote in his last merit retention in 2006. He graduated from the University of Miami law school and worked in private practice in South Florida, specializing in civil trial and appellate litigation.
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As chief justice, Lewis founded Justice Teaching, which has placed thousands of lawyers and judges in public schools to educate students in civic and legal issues. Lewis also has been active in areas relating to mental illness issues and the justice system, and he has won numerous awards for his work on other topics such as promoting diversity and court access to persons with disabilities.
Pariente, 63, received her law degree from George Washington University and was appointed to the court by Chiles in 1997. She specialized in civil litigation in South Florida before she was appointed as an appellate judge in 1993.
A former chief justice, Pariente has supported efforts to create alternatives to prison such as Florida's drug courts. She also works to improve the handling of cases involving families and children, and she was inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2006, Pariente won merit retention with 68 percent of the vote.
Quince, 64, received her law degree from Catholic University of America and was appointed to the court by Chiles and Gov.-elect Jeb Bush in 1998. She worked as a private attorney and then spent more than a decade in the state attorney general's office, handling death penalty cases and other appellate criminal cases.
A former chief justice, Quince became the first African-American woman to be named to one of the district courts of appeal when Chiles appointed her in 1993. In 2006, she won merit retention with 68 percent of the vote.
Lewis, Pariente and Quince are accomplished lawyers and justices, and there is absolutely no reason to remove them from the Supreme Court. The politically motivated campaign to oust them because of ideological opposition to a handful of the court's opinions threatens the court's independence.
On the merit retention questions for Florida Supreme Court Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince, the Tampa Bay Times recommends a yes vote.