With justices under fire, Florida Bar launches voter campaign on merit retentionby John Kennedy | April 30th, 2012
With three Florida Supreme Court justices facing a stiff ballot challenge, the Florida Bar announced Monday it is kicking off a $300,000 campaign to educate voters about the merit retention system for electing justices and appelate judges.
Scott Hawkins, a West Palm Beach lawyer and president of the Florida Bar, said the campaign is not designed to promote Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Fred Lewis, who have been targeted for defeat by Restore Justice 2012, a conservative political campaign.
Instead, Hawkins said that in voter forums and other informational sessions, Bar members will attempt to educate voters about the benefits of merit retention, used in Florida for almost four decades,and also in place in 33 other states.
Hawkins said Bar polls show that 90 percent of Floridians don’t understand merit retention, in which voters get to cast a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on whether a judge or justice should receive another term.
“Fair and balanced information is essential for Florida citizens to make informed decisions,” Hawkins said.
Joining Hawkins at the event was former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, who helped spearhead the drive for voter-approved merit retention in 1976. “If not merit retention — what?” Askew said, adding that it has helped shield judges and justices from politicking.
Merit retention was introduced as a fix after a host of scandals involving conventionally elected, state Supreme Court justices. Indictments, impeachment and accusations of tampering with lower-court rulings clouded the court in the early 1970s.
But with the three Florida Supreme Court justices up for merit retention in November already raising almost $500,000, this year’s normally quiet merit retention contest already is sparking fireworks.
”Today, the community which has injected an unprecedented near half-million dollars into the retention races ironically held a press conference to warn about politicizing the court,” said Jesse Phillips, leader of the Restore Justice 2012 campaign. “We agree that the vote is in our court, and look forward to November when responsible citizens will decide whether or not to retain the justices based on their record of decisions.”
Restore Justice has emerged out of opposition to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that stripped from the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at stopping the federal health care overhaul from being implemented in Florida.
Of the justices who joined the majority in the 5-2 decision, Phillips already unsuccessfully tried to oust Jorge Labarga and James Perry in 2010. This year’s focus on Quince, Lewis and Pariente, though, appears better organized and may draw more serious financing.
The justices have raised close to $500,000 already for their campaigns. Restore Justice so far has collected $41,650.
Hawkins said it was important for Floridians to know how to assess a performance by a justice, who he said could handle 8,000 cases during a six-year term.
“Is it fair to assess a judge on onel ruling, or should you assess them on the 7,999 other cases they have touched?” Hawkins said.