Florida justices' supporters say fears easing

Published On: Oct 25 2012 12:39:17 PM EDT
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Supporters of three Florida Supreme Court justices seeking up-or-down retention votes say they're now less worried about losing due to indifference by the legal profession, the public and news media because the Republican Party's opposition to the trio has raised the race's profile.

The supporters had feared a repeat of what happened in Iowa two years ago when a late infusion of out-of-state money helped defeat three justices over a 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in that state.

"We've been telling people there was a stealth plane out there and nobody believed us," said former state Sen. Alex Villalobos, a Miami Republican who supports the three. "Then they flew it over the Capitol at 12 o'clock high."

The Florida Republican Party's executive committee announced Sept. 21 its opposition to the justices, breaking a longtime nonpartisan tradition.The GOP accused the justices of "activism" and criticized several of their decisions, including ordering a new trial for a convicted killer. That ruling was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices and their supporters countered that the Republicans and other opponents were threatening the independence of the judiciary by politicizing the retention elections.

After the announcement, newspaper editorial boards that once ignored the issue began criticizing the GOP for its stance while lawyers and others began writing checks and volunteering to help the justices, Villalobos said.

Villalobos, a lawyer, is among several high-profile Republicans who disagree with their party's decision to enter the fray. He heads a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called Democracy at Stake, which has been attempting for nearly two years to foster knowledge about merit selection and retention of Supreme Court justices and appellate judges.

The justices and judges are appointed by the governor and run for retention every six years. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince are on the Nov. 6 ballot. The other four justices ran in 2010. Voters have not removed a single jurist since Florida began retention elections in 1978.

In a four-week span starting a week before the GOP announcement, the campaigns of the three justices raised a combined $341,623. That pushed their total collected since Jan. 1, to $1.36 million.

Democracy at Stake cannot aid candidates but a spin-off political committee, Defend Justice from Politics, can. It has separately raised $1.45 million and is running television ads in Orlando, Tampa, Miami and West Palm Beach, spokeswoman Lisa Hall said.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry says the GOP doesn't plan to divert money from other races to oppose the justices.

Reports filed with the state Division of Elections show one opposition group, Restore Justice Inc., has spent only $11,770.

The Florida chapter of the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans for Prosperity, which isn't required to report contributions and expenditures, has run ads criticizing a pair of Supreme Court rulings dealing with the state's opposition to the national health care overhaul and property rights. It also is urging voters to sign a petition asking the justices to "stop legislating from the bench."

The justices on Wednesday , though, got a boost from a conservative source, the Federalist Society. It released an analysis of several cases that opponents have criticized, which concluded "there does not appear to be a pattern of unprincipled decision-making by any of the justices."

If voters oust the justices, Republican Gov. Rick Scott would appoint replacements from candidates recommended by a nominating panel, also appointed by the governor.

Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Pariente and Lewis in 1997 and 1998, respectively. He jointly named Quince with Republican Jeb Bush, then governor-elect, in 1998.

Villalobos said he was worried because a relatively low-key campaign by Restore Justice in 2010 was able reduce the winning percentages of two Florida justices.

That was the inspiration for forming Democracy at Stake. One of the first things it did was conduct focus groups at four sites around the state and learned that the public knowledge about the state Supreme Court is scant.

Not one of 130 participants representing cross-sections of their communities could name a single justice nor did anyone know what the Supreme Court's role is, Villalobos said.

"That's when we got a sense of, oh boy, these people are really vulnerable" to an Iowa-type campaign, Villalobos said. "It's the perfect storm."

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