TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott may not get a chance to replace three Florida Supreme Court justices after a prosecutor said Thursday that no charges would be brought against them for having state-paid employees notarize their campaign forms.
State Attorney Willie Meggs said that an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows the justices had campaign forms notarized by state employees during working hours to meet an April filing deadline. But the prosecutor said common sense says notarizing a signature would not constitute furthering one's campaign.
"It is well established that the law does not concern itself with trifles," Meggs said in a letter to FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey. "No charges will be filed and this matter should be closed."
Meggs acknowledged that FDLE's investigation of justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, showed the judges had apparently run afoul of the statute. But he wrote that "common sense should be used in deciding cases."
"In this case, notarizing a signature is a minor act which was likely accomplished in less than a minute," wrote Meggs, who is based in Tallahassee.
A separate legal action aimed at keeping the judges off the election ballot has been filed in Leon County court by a conservative Atlanta-based legal organization, the Southeastern Legal Foundation.
In a statement issued Thursday, Scott said he would await a decision by the Leon County court.
“According to FDLE findings, it appears using state employees to complete and file campaign forms and other documents is ‘common practice,’” he said. “Now this case is before the courts where a determination will be made as to whether this ‘common practice’ is legal. Whatever the ruling, we will accept it and act accordingly.”
Scott, a Republican, has been a critic of the high court. All three justices were appointed by the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, although Quince's appointment was endorsed by then-incoming Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican.
FDLE's investigation determined that the other four justices also used court personnel to notarize financial disclosure forms — a practice largely for convenience.
State Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, had asked Scott to have FDLE investigate whether laws were broken when the justices had forms notarized just before the deadline. The governor then requested the FDLE review.
In Florida, appeals judges and Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor. But instead of running for re-election, they are subject to an up or down merit retention vote.
Last week, Scott said the justices should follow the law and he wouldn't answer whether he'd vote to retain any of them.
In 2010, the state Supreme Court removed from the ballot three constitutional amendments pushed by the GOP-controlled Legislature including a "health care freedom" amendment sponsored by Plakon that would have made it illegal in Florida to have a health insurance mandate. Legislators in 2011 reworked the amendment and placed it on this year's ballot.
The Southeastern Legal Foundation filed a complaint last week for declaratory and injunctive relief and asked a Leon County court to prohibit Secretary of State Ken Detzner from placing the three Justices on November's statewide ballot. The group said the justices may have violated ethics rules because they raise money to urge voters to keep them on the bench.
A message for comment from the foundation was not immediately returned.