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Crime & Courts

3 Florida justices on ballot decry assault on judiciary

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:59 PM
TAMPA -

The three state Supreme Court justices on the ballot this fall may not agree on every case that comes before them, but on one thing they are united:

The state's impartial system of justice is being threatened by the actions of the Republican Party and by forces both inside and outside the state.

The critics, said Justice Peggy Quince, have launched "an attack on our judicial system and whether or not we are really going to continue to have fair and impartial judges and whether or not we are going to continue to have in this state judges who are not beholden to anyone."

Quince, as well as Justices Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis, met Thursday with The Tampa Tribune editorial board and recorded an interview with News Channel 8.

In any other year, the idea of Supreme Court justices doing multiple media interviews — especially as a group — would be extraordinary. But this year, the three are facing a retention election unlike any before, with the Republican Party and conservative groups from inside and outside the state campaigning against them in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan election.

The justices are fighting for their careers and, they say, the integrity of the system.

They say they hope to continue the conversation after Election Day so citizens will examine whether changes need to be made to protect the judicial branch of government from political assaults.

Asked whether they had ideas for changes, Pariente said, "Can we discuss that after Nov. 7?"

"Because we do have ideas," Quince said.

"There are some ideas that might help stabilize it," Pariente said. "I think in 1976, when they put this system into effect and really thought the core of it was merit selection, that that was going to be the way to really keep it."

Lewis said he doesn't believe the constitution needs to be changed but that the judicial canons that restrict how the justices can campaign may need to be examined. For example, judges and justices are not permitted to endorse one another. Ordinarily, the justices said, this makes sense. Judges shouldn't get involved in other elections.

But they said the rule doesn't account for a situation like the one they face now in which they are being challenged as a unit for the same reasons by the same groups.

The justices said they are interpreting the restriction carefully by not allowing their campaign committees to pool resources and avoiding joint advertising, even though they think the situation warrants that.

"Can things be improved?" Pariente said. "I want to wait till after the election, and I have already told some law schools I'd like to sit down and let's talk about everything."

Said Quince: "I have not really studied whether the merit selection and retention itself needs to be changed because for 36 years it has worked the way it was envisioned to work."

Lewis said the retention vote is a "safety valve," allowing the public to weigh in if a justice or appellate judge no longer is competent to serve.

The three justices emphasized that the retention election is not supposed to be about politics or whether voters agree with particular judicial decisions, unless those decisions are not grounded in the law and constitution.

Also on the ballot this year are 11 proposed constitutional amendments, including one that would make several changes to the Supreme Court: providing for Senate confirmation of justices, giving the Legislature more say over court rules and access to investigation files of the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Although the justices mostly demurred when asked what they thought of the proposal, Lewis responded when asked whether it is part of a larger effort by the Legislature to take over the courts.

"Let's be honest," he said. "Of course it is. This started a couple of years ago in the sessions, and at a time they wanted to split the Supreme Court. They wanted to place the three of us on the highest court for criminal appeals because of our great experience and what great criminal jurists we were. Yet just in one year we have all of a sudden become incompetent."

Another amendment on the ballot asks the public to weigh in on federal health care reform. The proposal was rejected by the state Supreme Court two years ago, placing it at the center of a TV commercial backed by brothers David and Charles Koch, billionaire conservative activists and founders of the group Americans for Prosperity.

The justices said the court rejected the amendment because the ballot summary was misleading, something they say the Legislature conceded.

"So what are the Koch brothers, what are these outside people talking about?" Pariente said. "What do they want in our state? I don't know whether I'm more concerned that the Republican Party has misrepresented facts for a reason that must be a political reason or whether outside special interests, billionaires, have misrepresented something, or are they all together? It is something that should be of utmost concern."

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