Florida justices hit the road to make case for retention on bench

The Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court

Justice Barbara Pariente

Justice Barbara Pariente

Justice Peggy A. Quince

Justice Peggy A. Quince

Justice R. Fred Lewis

Justice R. Fred Lewis

With politics seeping into nonpartisan judge retention votes nationwide, three Florida Supreme Court justices are taking an unusual step this week — hitting the road to inform voters about how appellate judges are kept on the bench.

The justices, who are touring news organizations throughout the state, will all appear on the ballot in November, when Florida voters will decides whether to retain them for another six-year term based on a yes-no vote. Long a virtual formality — voters have retained judges in every election — this year's vote is expected to be one of the most contended and expensive in Florida history.

"I've felt for some time there is not enough information out there about merit retention," said Justice Barbara Pariente, who is up for a retention vote and visited the Daily News on Monday.

In recent years, outside spending groups have started targeting statewide judicial votes, looking to oust judges whose rulings on contentious issues differ from their views. Florida could be targeted because the three Supreme Court justices up for retention — Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince — all were appointed by former Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. (Quince was appointed jointly by Chiles and Republican governor-elect Jeb Bush.)

If any of the justices lose the merit retention vote, a state judicial nominating commission will select several replacement candidates, with Gov. Rick Scott choosing from that pool.

Supporters of the merit system say it was created to ensure judges don't make decisions for political reasons, without fear of retribution in partisan elections."As a legislator and a citizen, I don't want judges making the laws. But I also don't want a special interest to want to sway the system," said local lawyer and state Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who joined Pariente on Monday to support the merit retention process.

One conservative-leaning group, Orlando-based Restore Justice Inc., has already raised more than $50,000 to oppose the three Democrat-appointed justices. The group's president, Jesse Phillips, said voters deserve to cast ballots with the knowledge of each justice's rulings on key cases.

"We're concerned about where these justices are coming from and that we have one of the more activist courts in the nation," Phillips said. "There's an incredible lack of awareness about who these justices are."

Lewis, Pariente and Quince have all been twice retained, each receiving about 68 percent of the vote in 2006 and 72 percent in 2000.

Supreme Court judges are regularly retained by large margins, but in 2010, Justice Jorge Labarga became the first since 1990 to receive less than 60 percent support. Phillips' conservative group used social media to oppose Labarga because of his vote to remove an amendment from the ballot, among other issues.

In Iowa, special interest groups spent nearly $300,000 to oust three Supreme Court justices in 2010, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's Law School. All three Iowa justices, who were part of a unanimous decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, lost their vote.

In response to the outside spending influence spreading nationwide, the Florida Bar, which doesn't endorse candidates, has pushed to educate voters about the retention vote. The Bar also will publish results of a survey sent to lawyers statewide about their support for the three justices.

"It became apparent to us we have to do what's necessary to inform the public about the merit retention process," Florida Bar President Gwynne Young said.

The trio up for retention this year has already been subject to a lawsuit that their supporters call politically motivated.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation, an Atlanta-based organization, is representing two Florida men trying to get all three justices kicked off the ballot, saying they illegally filed qualifying papers. A Leon County judge tossed the case Aug. 8, saying the two men didn't have standing to bring forward the lawsuit. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, ordered by Scott, also found no wrongdoing by the justices.

Shannon Goessling, the Southeastern Legal Foundation's executive director and chief legal counsel, denied the lawsuit is politically motivated.

As November approaches, special interest groups opposing the three justices will start making ad buys, said Naples attorney John Cardillo, who regularly supports Democrat candidates. Those groups will have more freedom to discuss specific policies than the justices, who are limited by ethics rules.

"Dollar for dollar, (the justices) are certainly not going to be able to compete in that regard," Cardillo said.

Phillips notes that the justices, who can raise money, have combined to accumulate nearly $975,000 combined. He also disagrees with Cardillo's assessment, saying it's "going to be hard to make ad buys" for outside spending groups.

"There's so many other national and higher profile state issues," Phillips said. "It could happen, but I just think the fears are exaggerated."

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