Courts

Lawsuit aims to throw three Florida Supreme Court justices off ballot

 

The suit claims three justices violated the law when they used staff to help them complete paperwork to appear on the ballot for merit retention.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Two Seminole County men filed suit Monday in Leon County asking the secretary of state to remove the three Florida Supreme Court justices who are seeking merit retention from the November ballot.

Bernard Long and Veronco L. “Ron” Flores claim that Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince broke state law when they halted a court hearing on the state Senate’s redistricting plan so they could complete the required paperwork to qualify for merit retention.

“The delay caused by the justices cost Florida taxpayers thousands of dollars in additional legal fees for private outside counsel who were forced to wait while the justices worked on their campaign documents,’’ the lawsuit alleges. “Upon information and belief, the justices campaigns have not reimbursed the State of Florida or any private litigant for their costs and expenses caused by the delay.”

Gov. Rick Scott, who would appoint the replacements if the three justices are removed from the court, has ordered an FDLE investigation into whether the judges violated the law when they used court personnel to notarize their paperwork. The justices are up for a merit retention vote in November, in which voters cast a yes or no vote indicating whether or not they believe the judges are qualified to continue to serve. State law prohibits state workers from working on a campaign during office hours.

The justices say it is routine practice for judges to use court personnel to notarize their election documents, and their lawyer produced examples of previous judges, including Chief Justice Charles Canady, who used the same procedure when he qualified for his merit retention race in 2010.

The individuals who filed the lawsuit, however, say the judges violated a state law because the documents were necessary for them to conduct their campaign.

On Monday, Scott refused to say whether he believes the judges violated any law, but implied that he thinks they did. “It’s the Supreme Court, they should comply with the law,” he said.

The lawsuit is being handled by the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a law firm based in Georgia that has in the past sued the Environmental Protection Agency to challenge its ability to regulate carbon dioxide and challenged the federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a protracted fight against the justices by conservative organizations and individuals opposed to some of the court’s most controversial rulings.

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, urged the governor to call for the FDLE investigation. An Orlando-based group, Restore Justice, has raised funds and plans to mount a campaign exposing the judges for “their pattern of judicial activism,’’ said Jesse Phillips, president of the organization. The group applauded the filing of the lawsuit on Monday, saying, “Restore Justice finds it disappointing that Florida’s highest court would be so careless with the law they are sworn to uphold.”

A spokeswoman for the justices’ campaign blasted the conservatives’ effort.

“This is clearly a headline hunt by the Southern Legal Foundation,”' said Robin Rorapaugh. “Anyone can file false statements of facts and false statements of law in allegations just as this entity has in an organized attempt to besmirch the reputations of three Florida Supreme Court Justices.”

Barry Richard, the Tallahassee-based lawyer who successfully defended the state before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2000 recount lawsuit, is among the list of legal scholars who argue the justices violated no state laws.

In a legal opinion written by Richard and sent to Dan Stengle, the legal advisor to the three justices’ campaign, Richard argued that using state employees to notarize documents during working hours does not constitute campaign activity and was not unlawful.

“The statute was clearly not intended to prohibit public employees from engaging in politically neutral activities that are within the scope of their regular public employment and that are intended to be performed during working hours,’’ Richard wrote.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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