The Republican Party of Florida has injected itself into a heated battle over the future of the state Supreme Court, issuing a statement saying the GOP opposes three justices who form the backbone of the court’s left-of-center majority.
The paragraph-long statement said the party’s executive board unanimously voted last week to oppose Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince in November’s retention elections. The justices do not face opponents but must get the support of a majority of Floridians to hold onto their posts.
“While the collective evidence of judicial activism amassed by these three individuals is extensive, there is one egregious example that all Florida voters should bear in mind when they go to the polls on election day,” said the statement issued by RPOF spokeswoman Kristen McDonald. “These three justices voted to set aside the death penalty for a man convicted of tying a woman to a tree with jumper cables and setting her on fire.”
McDonald appeared to be referring to the case of Joe Nixon, who was convicted in the 1984 murder of Jeanne Bickner in Leon County. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nixon in 2003 during one of several appeals, finding his lawyer erred in essentially conceding Nixon’s guilt during trial without a getting a statement of approval from Nixon.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision.
The statement did not say when precisely the RPOF board held its vote.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is refusing so far to take sides in a battle over whether to keep three Supreme Court justices. Bondi, the state’s chief legal officer, said Monday that she had not read the party statement and could not say if she agreed with her fellow Republicans.
Supporters of the trio blasted the GOP move, portraying it as an unprecedented effort by Republicans to seize control of the courts. If the justices were defeated, successors would be selected by Governor Rick Scott, a Republican.
“The Legislature wants to politicize the court so that it is no longer independent but the handmaiden of the Republican Legislature,” said Dick Batchelor, a former lawmaker with Defend Justice from Politics.
Groups like Batchelor’s have rallied to the justices’ side since an organization called Restore Justice 2012 began an effort to push Lewis, Pariente and Quince off the court. No sitting Supreme Court justice has ever lost a retention election.
Restore Justice and other groups say the jurists are activists who have overstepped their power. Supporters say the justices have followed the law and merit retention elections are meant to remove justices for misconduct, not because of judicial philosophy.
“The announcement that the Republican Party is engaged in this effort would shock those wonderful Republican statesmen who helped create the merit selection and merit retention processes,” said Tallahassee attorney Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association. “Surely we do not want to go back to the broken past.”
The GOP decision set the Twitter world abuzz on both sides, with people and organizations chiming in from across the United States. Rachel Sutz Pienta, a Virginia State University professor, wrote, “Boo, hiss!”
“It doesn’t matter what party you belong to, politics has no place in the courts. This is a power grab that hurts everyone,” tweeted plaintiffs attorney Mariano Garcia of Searcy, Denney, Scarola Barnhart & Shipley in West Palm Beach.
Dale Davis, a Melbourne conservative, tweeted, “Do not retain Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Fred Lewis per the RPOF!”
Before the justices faced this new Republican opposition, their fundraising efforts tailed off this summer.
Lewis, Pariente and Quince raised a combined $40,758 from Aug. 10 to Sept. 14, reports filed Friday show. Since July 7, they have raised a combined $92,693.
Those totals are dramatically different from the first half of the year when each justice raised about $300,000.
Some conservatives have long said they would try to defeat the justices during merit-retention elections in November, but the effort got a potentially huge boost when the state GOP announced its executive board’s opposition to their retention.
While it was not immediately clear how aggressive the party will be in trying to oust the justices, the announcement raised the profile of the usually sleepy merit-retention votes and could send a signal to Republican voters who have long complained about what they perceive as liberal judges.
Lewis and Pariente were appointed to the court by former Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles, while Quince was a joint appointment by Chiles and former Republican Governor Jeb Bush.
Campaign-finance records show the justices have received most of their contributions from attorneys and law firms. Lewis has raised $333,460, Pariente $352,920 and Quince $332,843 — with each reporting Friday they had slightly more than half of those amounts still on hand.
While the state GOP opposes their retention, the justices have received at least some support from well-known Republicans or conservatives.
For example, former Justice Raoul Cantero, a Bush appointee to court and now a White & Case partner in Miami, has been a prominent supporter. Ballard Partners, a high-powered Republican lobbying firm, contributed $500 to each of the justices’ campaigns in June, the records show.
Before the Republican Party announcement, Restore Justice had been the primary voice of opposition to the justices. During the first half of the year, Restore Justice received almost all of its contributions from South Florida physician Allan Jacob, who chipped in $59,250, according to the group’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
In August, state records show Restore Justice also filed in Florida as an “electioneering communications organization,” which can try to influence races by running ads. The so-called ECO raised $1,075 from Aug. 13 to Sept. 14.
Justices must come up for merit-retention votes every six years, but the elections usually draw little attention. In 2006, Lewis, Pariente and Quince each received more than 67 percent of the vote.
Florida conservatives could be trying to follow the lead of Iowa, where voters in 2010 removed three justices who supported legalizing gay marriage in the state. An attempt is under way to try to oust another Iowa justice in November’s election.