Supreme Court justice up for merit retention vote hit back at critics

By on October 8, 2012

Three justices of the Florida Supreme Court used a forum Friday at Florida State University to hit back at their critics, while campaign filings showed the trio had raised more than $1 million for their electoral defense.

Speaking to an audience at the FSU College of Law comprised mostly of students, Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince pushed back against a campaign to push them off the bench that has spread from a conservative grass-roots uprising to a denouncing of the three by the Republican Party of Florida.

The justices said that the effort to throw them off the court in this November’s merit retention elections, in which the justices don’t face opposition but have to get the approval of a majority of voters, was a challenge to the state’s judicial branch itself.

“We do not want and we should not want to go back to a system where judges are beholden to anyone — no political party, no group, no individual,” Quince said.

Pariente stressed the same theme: That the bid by the group Restore Justice 2012 and other opponents to push the justices off the court would help to dismantle some of the reforms passed after a series of scandals shook the high court in the 1970s.

“What we see is that it is not about just the three of us, but it is about our system of a fair and impartial judiciary,” she said.

Lewis, who at times choked back tears when talking about his respect for the court and his role as a judge, recalled working for then-Circuit Court Judge Shelby Highsmith’s unsuccessful campaign for the Supreme Court. Lewis said he and Highsmith were shocked at the corruption in the race.

“Floridians deserve better,” Lewis said. “We ought not allow it to go back to those days.”

Opponents have sought to cast the three, who often serve as the backbone of the court’s left-of-center majority, as activist judges who are out of touch with the state’s voters. Supporters have insisted that the justices have simply followed the law and that the new effort is an attempt to mold a court less likely to thwart Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Recently, the Republican Party of Florida’s executive board got into the fight, upbraiding the justices for their votes in a 2003 appeal by Joe Nixon, who was convicted in the 1984 murder of Jeanne Bickner in Leon County. In that ruling, the court found that Nixon’s lawyer erred in essentially conceding his guilt during the trial without getting a statement of approval from Nixon. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision.

“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,” party spokeswoman Kristen McDonald said when the state GOP announced it was backing the effort to remove the justices.

But Lewis told reporters after the event that he ruled against one of Nixon’s earlier appeals in 2000.

“So I guess I should take it that their attack is actually a compliment,” he said.

Lewis did concur in the majority opinion in the 2003 appeal, but wrote in a separate concurring opinion that he felt bound by the court’s earlier ruling even though he thought the result was “legally and logically incorrect.”

Lewis added to reporters that his colleagues shouldn’t be attacked for the decision. And he criticized the RPOF for jumping into the fray.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “And I would have been disappointed if the Democratic Party had come out one way or another. I would have been disappointed if the Green Party [had gotten involved]. I’m disappointed that we are in an era where partisan politics, there’s an attempt to inject that into nonpartisan matters.”

Meanwhile, as the justices began fighting back harder by speaking out publicly, figures showed the committees working to retain the justices were also back on the fundraising path. After raising little money in July and August, the justices collected a combined total of $132,002 between Sept. 15 and Sept. 28, newly filed reports show.

Pariente’s committee raised $51,796, Quince’s raised $40,531, and Lewis’ raised $39,675 during the period.

The justices collected large amounts of money during the first half of the year before fund-raising dropped off in July. In all, the justices have collected about $1.15 million, with Pariente topping $404,000 and Quince and Lewis each at about $373,000.

Material from Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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