A lawsuit aimed at barring three Florida Supreme Court justices from the ballot this fall has taken another strange twist.
The Southeastern Legal Foundation said Friday that it has been frustrated trying to serve subpoenas to 14 court employees as part of its case against Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. A Supreme Court marshal has refused to allow a process server deliver the subpoenas inside the courthouse.
After two days of trying, only two subpoenas had been served by Friday — to Court Clerk Thomas Hall and to Anthony Stella, a law clerk for Lewis, said Shannon Goessling, the foundation’s executive director.
Phone calls to the offices of staff sought to be subpoenaed for depositions in the case have since gone unanswered, Goessling, told the Palm Beach Post.
“This has been the strangest experience,” Goessling said. “The server has told us he serves people all the time in state of Florida public buildings. This should not be a big deal at all.”
But John DeVault, a former Florida Bar president and attorney for the justices, said the foundation was out of line with its allegations. Justices have filed a motion for a protective order to keep them and staff from being deposed, along with another motion to dismiss the case as frivilous.
With such motions pending, “no reputable attorney would ever move forward with subpoenas,” DeVault said. The foundation “obviously wants to try this matter by press release because they know they don’t have a good case.”
The conservative foundation is asking a Leon County Circuit judge to decide whether the justices should be removed from the November ballot because they received help from court staff in completing their candidacy papers earlier this year. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation of the justices’ action determined that the assistance they received was “common practice,” and dropped the matter.
Judge Terry Lewis has scheduled a first hearing in the case for Aug. 8, when he will consider the motions already filed.
But court staff walling off the Supreme Court building from legal process servers underscores the power of the justices in the matter, Goessling said. Lewis has not ruled on any of the matters before him — including a bid to block the subpoenas of court personnel. Until then, process serving should go on as usual, she said.
In April, the justices were helped by court staff to complete their campaign filing papers just minutes before a deadline for judicial qualifying. Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, later steered Gov. Rick Scott to a section of state elections law which bars candidates from using public employees during working hours in the “furtherance of his or her candidacy.”
A violation is a first-degree misdemeanor. Scott then forwarded Plakon’s request for an investigation to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which completed its probe without recommending charges.
In an election year, it’s no surprise that the push to unseat the last three justices appointed by late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles is heavily tinged with politics.
Plakon was the sponsor of a proposed 2010 ballot measure aimed at bolstering Republican attempts to keep the federal health care law from being enacted in Florida, a goal Scott shares. The proposed ballot language was ruled unconstitutional by the court, although the measure has since been rewritten and looks certain to go before voters in November.
The justices’ qualifying kerfuffle 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.