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Fla GOP defends campaigning against justices

Monday, September 24th, 2012 by John Kennedy

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.

 

Florida GOP joins fight to unseat three justices

Friday, September 21st, 2012 by John Kennedy

The Florida Republican Party said Friday it is adding its heft to an effort to unseat the last three state Supreme Court justices appointed by a Democratic governor.

State GOP Chairman Lenny Curry said the party’s executive board has 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 labeled the three a liberal leaning bloc on the seven-member court, which has stymied a range of initiatives advanced by the Republican-ruled Legislature in recent years.

Curry didn’t say whether the party would steer cash toward Restore Justice, which so far has reported only modest fund-raising. Instead, party leaders lashed out at the justices as activists, pointing to a specific death penalty ruling.

“While the collective evidence of judicial activism amassed by these three individuals is extensive, there is one egregious example that all Florida voters should bear in mind when they go to the polls on election day,” said GOP spokeswoman Kristen McDonald. “These three justices voted to set aside the death penalty for a man convicted of tying a woman to a tree with jumper cables and setting  her on fire.”

McDonald referred to a 2003 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that ordered a new trial for Joe Elton Nixon, convicted of murder in Leon County 19 years earlier. The three justices were part of a 5-2 ruling that found Nixon’s lawyer wrongfully conceded his client’s guilt without his approval.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Florida court in an 8-0 decision. Nixon is still on death row.

Supporters of the justices blasted the GOP’s entry into the campaign.

“Florida has had its experience with partisan political involvement in our judiciary and we know that it has been corrupting,” said Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association and Florida State University president.

“ The announcement that the Republican Party is engaged in this effort would shock those wonderful Republican statesmen who helped create the merit selection and merit retention processes,” he added.  ”Surely we do not want to go back to the broken past.”

In merit retention, in place in Florida since 1976, 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 fueled a kind of “kill the umpire” campaign, emerging 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.

Curry later the the Post that it was not yet decided whether the GOP would spend money on TV spots, mail pieces or other efforts to defeat the justices. “Those are operational decisions,” Curry said.

But he added the direction from his board members was clear. “They said, ‘make sure the justices are not retained,’” Curry said.

State investigators clear justices of wrongdoing, Scott not pleased

Thursday, July 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Three Florida Supreme Court justices did not break the law when they used court staff to notarize campaign documents, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement decided.

But the matter is not settled. Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Fred Lewis, up for merit retention, now have to fend off a lawsuit seeking to strip them off the November ballot.

Gov. Rick Scott directed FDLE to investigate the issue last month after state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, steered the governor to a state election law prohibiting candidates from using state employees who are on the clock for campaign work.

Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs found the judges apparently violated the law, but noted in a letter to FDLE that the notarization took less than a minute.

“It is well established that the law does not concern itself with trifles. In general, there is no prohibition against a notary employed by the state, notarizing a document for their boss, or even as a public service to the citizenry,” Meggs, a Democrat, wrote to FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey this week.

FDLE investigators agreed.

“It appears that the practice of using staff members to notarize campaign and other documents is common practice throughout the State and is done solely as a matter of convenience,” the FDLE report concluded.

The involvement of staff to notarize the financial disclosures and candidates oaths “was ancillary in nature and limited solely to notary services and the typing of the headers on these documents,” the report found. “Neither the Justices nor the Supreme Court staff interviewed considered the notarization of these documents to be, in any way, campaign related, and no evidence indicating an abuse of either position or public resources was revealed during the course of this inquiry.”

Scott issued a terse statement sounding displeased with FDLE’s results.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Commissioner Gerald Bailey and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for diligently reviewing the possible violations by Florida Supreme Court Judges. According to FDLE findings, it appears using state employees to complete and file campaign forms and other documents is ‘common practice.’ Now this case is before the courts where a determination will be made as to whether this ‘common practice’ is legal. Whatever the ruling, we will accept it and act accordingly,” Scott said.

In April, the justices interrupted oral arguments after being alerted that their campaign documents were not complete. Court staff helped to complete their papers, which were submitted just minutes before the qualifying deadline.

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