BY STACY BYRD — Headlines this election season might be dominated by national politics, but in Florida, there’s a crucial election issue that most voters are alarmingly unaware of. The Republican Party of Florida, in conjunction with national conservative interest groups and PACs, has launched a campaign to encourage voters to oppose the merit retention of Florida Supreme Court justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince. On September 21, 2012, Florida Republicans unanimously voted to oppose the retention of these three justices in a move that goes far beyond partisan politics and raises a troubling threat to judicial independence.
Florida attempts to balance judicial independence with a method for voters to recall incompetent appellant judges. Florida’s governor appoints judges to the Florida Supreme Court and the district courts of appeal, on the basis of a professional panel’s recommendations. These judges are then periodically subjected to merit retention votes, ostensibly for voters to have an opportunity to remove judges guilty of egregious misconduct. This system has been in place since a 1970s constitutional amendment and has worked fairly well.
The Republican Party’s attempt to politicize these elections marks a troubling turn of events. Justices Lewis, Quince, and Pariente are well-respected jurists who are highly competent and professional. The only reason to oppose their retention is the Party’s misperception that these justices are too liberal for the state’s highest court. The Party is, not surprisingly, wrong on this count. Moreover, the justices’ politics, whatever they may be, are irrelevant. Merit retention is about competence, not partisanship.
Admirably, the Florida Bar was quick to respond. The Bar, a non-partisan organization, has invested $300,000 in a voter education program, available online. Florida Bar President Gwynne Young said “[t]he Florida Bar does not believe any political party — Democratic, Republican, or other — should participate in any nonpartisan election, particularly for judicial positions.”
The Republican Party’s move may have back-fired, at least in so far that it has jump-started the justices’ fund-raising—they have collectively raised more than $1 million to support their merit retention. And they have gone beyond simply trumpeting their records, and have rightly argued that the Party’s vote to oppose them injects a toxic politic tenor into a merit vote that is meant to focus on judicial competence. Justice Lewis, a veteran of the Court (and former UM Law Review member) argued that Florida must not “sacrifice fairness and impartiality and the court system to political whims.”