Must-read analysis of donations to Fla. Supreme Court Justices: Coordinated, predominantly lawyers, Democrats & from South Florida

By on September 18, 2012

The following is a guest post from Brecht Heuchan of Contribution Link.

When a vacancy on Florida’s High Court is created, it is filled through a gubernatorial appointment process from a list of nominees first selected by the Judicial Nominating Commission. Justices remain on the court or are re-elected so to speak, through a process known as merit retention.

Merit retention in Florida was first adopted in the 1970’s through a Constitution revision. Unlike a typical election, where voters may have an option of two or more candidates from whom to choose, merit retention simply gives voters a yea or nay choice to keep or not keep a judge.

If retained, Supreme Court Justices can serve six-year terms. If they are not retained, the JNC/ Governor process starts over. Three of Florida’s seven Supreme Court Justices are up for merit retention votes on the 2012 General Election ballot; Justice’s Peggy Quince, Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis.

Each of the three candidates has raised approximately $325,000. Only 20 legislative candidates, 15 Senate and 5 House candidates have fared better in total funds raised through the same F3 report time period. House and Senate candidates however run in single member districts with populations of approximately 156,000 and 470,000 respectively. Supreme Court Justice candidates run statewide and trying to communicate with Florida’s 11.5 million voters is a much more expensive proposition.

Of the 1,452 total donors to the three campaigns, nearly 70% or 999 donors gave to all three. According to campaign finance records, most of the matching contributions were made on the same days and many were bundled.

Contribution bundling is decried by some but it seems even the SCJ campaigns are not immune from this common practice. Florida law limits contributions to state candidates, including Supreme Court Justices, to not more than $500 per person or entity per election (the Primary and the General are considered two different elections). To maximize contributions, donors often coordinate giving among different, but affiliated entities sometimes called “bundled” contributions.

The Contribution Link system uses logic algorithms to identify affiliated donors. It counted 122 donors to the three campaigns that have one or more affiliate. From those donors, $160,000 was given. The top 5 affiliated donors are law firms or lawyers led by the Searcy Firm which gave approximately $3500 to each campaign.

Geographically, about half of all contributions to the campaigns come from two counties, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.  Surprisingly, Broward county donors account for only $28,000 or 2.9% of the Justice’s total contribution amount. Not surprisingly, Democrats appear to be much more likely to support the Justices as Democrat donors outnumber Republican donors by 4 ½ to 1.

While the Justices don’t have opponents, it doesn’t mean they aren’t opposed. Restore Justice 2012, an Electioneering Communication Organization formed in August, is at least one entity reportedly organized to oppose the retention of the three justices.  According to news accounts, Restore Justice has pledged to spend $70,000 to educate voters about the alleged failures of Lewis, Pariente and Quince. As of now however, Restore Justice has not reported any contributions to its effort. The political tactical scenario of running a campaign against someone without an opponent is a difficult one and likely a reason that in the 40 years the retention system has been in place, no Florida Supreme Court Justice has ever “lost”.

Notable statistics:

  • $977k total given
  • 1452 total donors
  • 999 donors (69%) gave to all three
  • 330 donors also gave to the fairdistricts.org effort
  • 261 donors are also donors to the Florida Justice Assn PAC
  • 76 donors also gave to Jeb Bush ‘02
  • 12 donors also donors to the NRA PAC
  • 10 donors are DNC delegates
  • 0 donors are RNC delegates
  • 31 out-of-state donors
  • $240k from Miami Dade County (24.6%)
  • $251k from Palm Beach County (25.7%)
  • $28k from Broward County (2.9%)
  • Former CFO Alex Sink gave $500 to each Candidate
  • 261 SCJ donors have a Democratic voter registration while only 58 were registered as Republicans. (Note: voter registration figures rely on a high quality name and address match, the actual numbers could be higher if a more liberal match criteria is used)

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