Fla GOP defends campaigning against justicesby John Kennedy | September 24th, 2012
The Florida Republican Party’s entry into a campaign to unseat three state Supreme Court justices drew fresh outrage Monday from supporters who said it endangers an independent judiciary.
“I think the Republican Party should be concentrating on those races in the House and Senate,” said Alex Villalobos, a former Republican state senator from Miami. “To now divert money from those races into a total non-political, non-partisan race, is getting away from what they should be concentrating…No party has any business getting involved in this.”
The Florida GOP announced Friday that its executive board had voted to oppose the merit retention of Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince on Nov. 6.
A conservative group, Restore Justice 2012, has condemned the three justices as a liberal-leaning bloc on the seven-member court, which has stymied a variety of initiatives advanced by the Republican-ruled legislature in recent years.
But defenders of the justices said Florida voters created the merit retention system in 1976 to get politics out of the Supreme Court.
“Before we had that, we had terrible scandals involved” with the court, said Talbot ‘Sandy’ D’Alemberte, a former American Bar Association president, legislator and Florida State University law school dean and president. “What’s happening now is the Republican Party is trying to break something that was fixed.”
D’Alemberte, who served in the Legislature as a Democrat, said he would be “infuriated if the Democratic Party entered this. They’d have no business entering this.”
Curry, the GOP chairman, said no money that flows into the party for legislative races will be diverted to merit retention campaign. He also took issue with critics who say the move opens the door to outside special interest spending in the campaign.
Instead, Curry said the push to have the party work against the justices seeking six-year terms came from “the grassroots of the party.”
“This is coming right from the base of this party,” Curry said. “The more these (critics) push back, the more they’re likely to ignite the base.”
In merit retention, voters get to decide “yes” or “no” whether a justice should receive another six-year term. No justice has been voted off the court since it was introduced.
But some rulings by the Florida court in school voucher, abortion and ballot initiatives sought by the Republican-ruled Legislature have spawned anger from the political right. The three justices targeted were appointed by late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, with Quince named jointly with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
A study by the Brennan Center and the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that $38.4 million was spent on high court elections nationwide in 2009-10. Political parties and special interest groups, many of them backed by businesses or social activists, accounted for 30 percent of the spending.
The three justices have raised more than $1 million, combined, for their campaigns — with virtually all the cash coming from lawyers and law firms. The Florida Bar earlier this year also launched a $300,000 campaign to educate voters about the merit retention system for electing justices and appelate judges.
The Bar insisted the unprecedented effort had nothing to do with this year’s challenge to the high court justices. Instead, Bar leaders said polls show 90 percent of voters don’t understand merit retention.
While supporters of the justices say they worry about being overwhelmed by hard-hitting campaign ads, dollars haven’t flowed yet to the opposition campaign.
Restore Justice has received almost all of its contributions from a South Florida doctor, Allan Jacob, who contributed $59,250, according to the group’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
State records show Restore Justice also has filed in Florida as an “electioneering communications organization,” which can influence races by running ads and mailings. The so-called ECO raised $1,075 between Aug. 13 and Sept. 14.