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The week that was in Florida politics: Three justices, no peace, and a House race game change

By on September 30, 2012

A trio of Florida Supreme Court justices girded for battle this week following last week’s announcement by state Republicans that they will try to take the “activist” justices down.

The fight over efforts to remove justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince went from backwater to front burner this week with attorneys groups and former colleagues jumping to the jurists’ defense in the face of a recall campaign now officially blessed by the Republican Party of Florida.

The ramping up of forces in a judicial retention election – normally an obscure ballot item – highlighted an election-dominated week.

Also this week, state election officials settled with the federal government over early voting procedures while continuing the effort to keep ineligible voters from the polls, and a sitting state lawmaker announced he wouldn’t seek re-election after his name came up during a prostitution investigation.

And what would a Florida campaign be without some voter fraud. This week the RPOF severed ties with a voter registration company after paying it $1.3 million to gather signatures, some of which may have been faked. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott’s elections agency continued its pursuit of illegal voters, sending a new list of possible aliens to local elections officials for them to make sure they’re not voters.

Scott this week continued to sing the economy’s praises, touting job growth and other encouraging signs that Florida’s economy is coming back. The message continues despite less-optimistic assessments that have surfaced indicating some potholes remain on the road to recovery.

The governor’s weekly radio address boasts the addition of 28,000 new jobs.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

MERIT RETENTION BATTLE HEATS UP

Three Florida Supreme Court judges who have rejected Republican-backed efforts on a couple of issues found themselves in the crosshairs in the normally afterthought merit retention elections.

With some studies showing nine out of 10 Florida voters has no idea what merit retention even means, Lewis, Pariente and Quince are being targeted by conservatives and now the state Republican executive committee, which described the trio as liberals who had been involved in extensive “judicial activism.”

Since the 1970s, Supreme Court have had their names on the ballot every six years for voters to say whether they should stay on the court. If the justices are not retained, Scott will have the opportunity to appoint three new ones.

The justices have collectively raised more than $1 million to fight back, though judicial canons limit what they can say in their own defense.

ELECTION CHALLENGES REMAIN

Florida’s battle with federal officials over the state’s revised early voting scheme seems to have come to an end after a federal judge in Jacksonville this week denied a request by Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown and other black voters to stop the state from reducing the number of early-voting days ahead of the Nov. 6 elections.

The voters had argued that reducing the number of early-voting days from at least 12 to no more than eight, would disproportionately affect minority voters, who have been more likely to take advantage of early voting than white voters.

The state had countered that elections officials were allowed to offer more hours on each of those days, and that the changes applied equally to all voters.

In his decision, District Court Judge Timothy Corrigan of Jacksonville relied heavily on evidence that many counties would offer as many as 12 hours a day in early voting and would require some Sunday voting, a potential opening for the “souls to the polls” get-out-the-vote efforts of some black churches.

And local elections supervisors this week again began checking names of some registered voters to see if they’re eligible to cast ballots, using a list of 198 names from the state aimed at culling non-citizens from the rolls.

The Division of Elections this week sent the names to the supervisors in the counties where those voters live, after using a federal homeland security database to pinpoint those who might not be citizens.

Local elections supervisors contacted late this week said they are still waiting for more documentation before notifying potentially ineligible voters.

OBAMA UP, HORNER OUT

The latest Quinnipiac University poll released this week shows President Barack Obama opening up a wider lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but skeptics found the 53-44 percent Obama advantage a little hard to believe.

The nine-point spread may be a little optimistic, say other pollsters who have been tracking the race since it began.

Still, the poll was taken days after the release of Romney’s “47-percent speech” in which Romney, speaking to contributors, contends that nearly half of the U.S. population views the federal government as an entitlement teat.

In perhaps the biggest surprise of the week, one state House race changed dramatically.

Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, dropped his bid for re-election after his name was connected to a prostitution operation in Orange County.

Horner, a two-term lawmaker who chairs the House’s transportation and economic development budget committee, stepped down following reports linking him to Mark David Risner, 54, who was arrested Aug. 16 for racketeering and five prostitution-related charges.

Horner hasn’t been charged with any crime.

“I’ve had no greater honor than serving the people of Florida, but I have no greater priority than doing the right thing for my family,” Horner said. “I pray to have the chance to earn back their trust and respect during the remainder of my life.”

Local Republicans will be able to choose a new candidate to replace Horner, though his name will remain on the ballot, which can prove confusing. A vote for Horner will actually be a vote for the replacement.

But with the change, Democrat Eileen Game suddenly became, well, part of the game. Game, of Frostproof, had been thought a longshot, but with no incumbent and a close party breakdown in the new House District 42 in Osceola and Polk counties, Game looked this week to have a real shot.

FPL SEEKS HIGHER RATES, SCOTT SAYS ECONOMY DOING JUST FINE

Politics didn’t hold complete sway this week. Florida Power & Light came to Tallahassee in an unsuccessful effort to gain approval for an agreement that would end a six month rate hearing process. The Public Service Commission deferred action on a proposed settlement, which was opposed by the Office of Public Counsel.

The Public Counsel’s Charles Rehwinkel blasted the FPL proposal, which had the blessing of some the utility’s biggest commercial and industrial clients.

“This proposal is not agreed to by the legal representative of 99.9 percent FPL’s customers, which renders it, effectively just a proposal that FPL negotiated with itself with some specific rate increase offset to the signators,” Rehwinkel said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, steps out of his re-election bid after being connected to prostitution investigation, and the effort to remove three justices from the Supreme Court gets lots of attention.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “This is just a power grab by the Legislature trying to interfere in the business of the courts.” Former Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos on GOP efforts to oust the three justices.

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