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State justice uncomfortable with campaigning to keep seat

Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 12:35 PM

State Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince isn't used to asking people for their votes.

When she spoke today to the Hillsborough Association for Women Lawyers, Quince talked about the history of the state's merit retention system for appellate judges, the importance of an impartial judiciary and the need for people to vote in every election on the ballot, including those questions – such as her own – at the very bottom.

But Quince didn't ask her audience to vote yes on whether she should be retained.

"I am a little uncomfortable with it at all," Quince said with a laugh, "and quite frankly I got kind of caught up in talking about voting that I just – I forgot that one sentence."

Quince and two fellow justices, R. Fred Lewis and Barbara Pariente, face merit retention elections this year, as they each have twice before. Typically, these elections are unremarkable affairs, with no money spent, no campaigns and virtually no question about the likely outcome.

But this year's election is different, with organized conservative groups fighting to oust the justices based on past rulings that the groups label judicial activism.

To defend their seats, the justices are raising campaign funds for the first time, with each collecting more than $130,000 so far this year.

In addition, the Florida Bar has budgeted $300,000 to educate the public about the merit retention system. A Bar poll found upwards of 90 percent of lawyers statewide support the justices' retention.

An Orlando-based group, Restore Justice 2012, has issued a "voter guide" giving the three justices failing grades based on such rulings as their blocking of a ballot initiative on the Affordable Health Care Act, their historic 2000 ruling in the Bush v. Gore presidential race, and limitations they placed on school choice.

Jesse Phillips, a computer systems analyst who is president of Restore Justice 2012, said the group plans to spend about $70,000 on its own effort to educate voters. The bulk of the money, Phillips said, comes from Allan Jacobs, a South Florida doctor.

Phillips said his group is not telling people how they should vote, but added, "It's clear we think they don't have a very good track record, and if people honestly look at some of the decisions they've made, it certainly doesn't look very good."

"The decisions both for or against these justices should be made based on a history, from our perspective, of judicial activism and of making decisions that rewrite the law instead of simply applying it," Phillips said.

The Florida movement reflects what's happening around the country, according to Adam Skaggs, senior counsel of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

"My understanding is there are a bunch of different groups in different states and they're motivated by different issues in many cases," Skaggs said.

All of them are to the political right, including organizations that are socially and economically conservative, Skaggs said.

Their efforts nationwide were emboldened by the ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 during a campaign focused on their same-sex marriage ruling, Skaggs said. Those justices didn't raise any campaign funds to defend themselves.

A justice who was challenged in Illinois raised more than $2 million in campaign funds – more than the combined total campaign money raised by justices in that state the previous nine years. That justice held onto his seat.

"If I'm a judge, the obvious lesson is I'd better raise money and I'd better campaign and I'd better campaign hard," Skaggs said. "I think that's what we're seeing in Florida. These justices have decided they're not going to be sitting ducks."

Quince said the opposition is trying to inject politics into what is supposed to be an independent, impartial branch of government.

"It's inappropriate in the sense of, I don't believe that merit retention was intended for us to look at a few opinions and say, 'I don't agree,'" she said. "It was not intended for an intimidation factor. I think this is almost an attempt to intimidate judges into deciding cases the way some group might want it decided."

Phillips said it's entirely appropriate to look at judges' records when deciding how to vote.

"The job description of the judge is to uphold the Constitution," he said. "If the judge is not doing that in the mind of the voter, then the voter should vote to remove that judge."

Phillips said his group gets some of its strongest support from Tea Party groups and other conservatives, though it isn't connected with them. He said the organization has about 50 volunteers spread out among about half of the counties in the state.

Justices are not permitted to directly ask for money, so campaign representatives do so on their behalf. Contributions are capped at $500, and the court has held that it's not a conflict of interest for a justice to preside over a case involving someone who has contributed this amount.

Quince said raising money still makes her uncomfortable.

"I don't like my staff having to ask people for contributions, but that's the way you run a campaign."

Quince and the other justices facing retention are also fanning out across the state to talk to people as they never have before about merit retention.

This, Quince said, has been a distraction from her judicial duties.

"I have to focus on what is my primary mission and that is what I do at the court," she said, "but this also is taking up the other time and it's almost like, yeah, another job."

Florida instituted the merit retention elections after scandal rocked the state Supreme Court in the 1970s when two justices were accused of intervening in cases to help friends.

Also in the '70s, another justice resigned and yet another survived impeachment but was required to take a mental health examination to stay on the bench.

Under the current system, appellate judges and justices do not face opponents, but every six years, voters are asked to vote yes or no on retaining them.

Quince was appointed in 1998 by joint agreement by outgoing Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and incoming Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. She has stood for retention twice before – in 2000 and 2006, as have fellow justices, R. Fred Lewis and Barbara Pariente

Correction: Peggy Quince is one of three African-Americans to serve as a Florida Supreme Court justice, along with Leander Shaw and James Perry. An earlier version of this story contained an error.


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