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Monday, Sep 01, 2014

Fight effort to destroy independent judiciary

Special To The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 07:32 PM

We Floridians are in danger of losing the last and most important safeguard the individual citizen has against the overwhelming power of government, special interest money and political machinery: our independent and nonpartisan state Supreme Court.

Most Florida residents are unaware that on the Nov. 6 ballot is a critical vote on the issue of merit retention as it relates to three of our Florida Supreme Court justices. Merit retention was implemented in the 1970s after a scandal and public outcry about abuses that had occurred in the state courts by judges who were bribed and influenced by politicians. Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring the adoption of a merit retention system for appellate judges.

Every six years Florida appeals court judges and Supreme Court justices are placed on the voting ballot in nonpartisan elections that give voters a chance to oust judges who have somehow violated the judicial code of being impartial or who have become incompetent or unethical. The sole purpose of the merit retention system is to ensure citizens that we have a vehicle in place to preserve the integrity of our system of laws and our Democratic values.

Merit retention was never intended and is not supposed to be a referendum on whether or not the politicians, insurance companies or big businesses agree with a judge's decisions. So long as that judge is fair and impartial, he or she is serving in all of our best interests without being beholden to any cause or political or financial special interest group.

There is no room in our system of justice for the members of the judiciary to have to consider political ramifications of their rulings. To permit this would be inimical to the integrity of our justice system and ultimately destroy and sabotage its independence and the protection for each of us as citizens of this state and country. This is your system as well as mine, and I ask you to do what is necessary to preserve and protect it.

This year, three Supreme Court justices, Barbara Pariente, Peggy A. Quince and R. Fred Lewis, are up for the standard "merit retention" vote and have come under attack from Gov. Rick Scott and his political money machine. Scott sees this vote as an opportunity to stack the court with "special" judges of his own choosing who Scott and his politicos can expect to vote their way on social and legal issues. Scott has recently unleashed a series of attacks on the three justices to try to oust them from the judicial system under the pretext of merit retention. This is a perversion of the merit retention process and cannot be allowed. Our courts must be allowed to remain impartial, and the only duty that any judge should owe is to the Constitution.

Vote "yes" to retain all three justices so they will remain in office. Each of the justices are experienced, respected jurists who vote independently on the cases that come before them and are not dependent on the favor of any politician or political party. The outcome of a case is a rule of law; it is not decided based on personal opinion or whether any one of us likes a particular ruling — it is the law based on our Constitution and the application and protection of the constitution to all citizens. This will change if Scott has his way on Nov.6th.

If successful in the Supreme Court, Scott's next targets no doubt will be appellate and circuit court judges, with whom the governor and his cronies also do not agree.

Legislation is further trying to politicize the judiciary through Amendment 5. The summary is purposefully confusing and long. The proposed amendment would allow the state Senate the power to confirm or deny future justices to the Florida Supreme Court, taking away the current process that is designed to reduce partisan political influence. Rather than two-thirds vote, Amendment 5 would allow the Legislature to repeal court rules by a simple majority. There is a good reason the state constitution gives the Florida Supreme Court the power to make rules on the merits of justice: The justices are the most familiar with court-related issues.

The merit retention vote is our last and only chance to safeguard our court system and protect ourselves from each politician and special interest group who thinks he or she can buy the courts if they spend enough money to protect their business interests. Let's work together to kill the spirit of those who seek to own it.

Vote "yes" to retain each of the three justices and "no" to Amendment 5. For in-depth information and FAQ, please visit Defend Justice from Politics and the Florida Bar's website.

Barry A. Cohen is a Tampa attorney.

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