Justices push back against call for FDLE probeby John Kennedy | May 3rd, 2012
With Gov. Rick Scott still mulling a lawmaker’s request for a law enforcement investigation, supporters of three Florida Supreme Court justices said Thursday no laws were broken when court staff helped justices file qualifying papers with elections officials.
Attorney Barry Richard, who represented George W. Bush before the court following the 2000 presidential election, submitted a legal opinion to Dan Stengle, legal counsel for Justices Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Barbara Pariente.
He denied that justices using court employees to notarize filing papers amounts to what opponents call a criminal misdemeanor. State law prohibits candidates from using the services of a public employee during working hours ” in the furtherance of his or her candidacy.”
“The act of affixing a notary seal to qualifying documents does not indicate that the notary endorses the candidacy of the person filing the documents,” Richard wrote. “It simply certifies that the notary has witnessed the signature and has confirmed the identity of the person signing.”
Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, has asked Scott to order the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to look into the controversy surrounding the justices qualifying.
The issue played out publicly last month. The court took an hourlong recess during arguments in the state Senate redistricting case to allow justices to complete their qualifying papers for merit retention this fall.
With the help of court staff, the documents were filed with election officials only minutes before the deadline.
Since then, the issue has been seized on by opponents of the three justices, already tarred as a liberal-leaning bloc by a tea party-linked political committee called Restore Justice 2012. The campaign is seeking to make the trio the first Florida justices ever ousted in a merit retention campaign.
Plakon said Thursday that to him, the case was an obvious violation. “Every candidate learns early on, you don’t use your staff for anything political,” Plakon said. “No one should be above the law.”
But Stengle, the justices’ legal counsel, also advanced an additional level of defense. He questioned whether the justices are really candidates.
“Florida’s district court of appeal judges and Supreme Court Justices are not elected, but appointed through the merit selection process,” Stengle said. “Every six years, they are required by the Florida Constitution to participate in the merit retention process so that citizens of Florida may evaluate their job performance. Any documents that they are required to file by virtue of their positions as appellate judges or justices to qualify for merit retention are part of routine court business.”