TALLAHASSEE _ A Leon County Circuit Court judge dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday by a conservative legal group attempting to remove three Florida Supreme Court justices from the November ballot.
Ruling from the bench, Judge Terry Lewis of the Second Judicial Circuit sided with lawyers for Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, who argued the case was without merit.
The three justices, each of whom was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles in the 1990s, face a merit retention vote and have drawn criticism for halting an April 20 court hearing on the Senate redistricting plan to file last-minute paperwork.
The case was brought by the Southern Legal Foundation and voters Bernard Long of Lee County and Ron Flores of Seminole County, who argued that the justices should be disqualified for using court-appointed staff to help them complete their qualifying papers.
Lawyers for the justices argued that only a state attorney or the Florida Elections Commission can bring a case forward to remove a candidate from the ballot for failing to qualify.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner has determined that the three judges properly completed and submitted their qualifying paperwork and should remain on the ballot and an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded that candidates and judges throughout the state have routinely used government staff to help them notarize their qualifying papers just as the justices did.
Lewis said the plaintiffs failed to prove they were personally harmed by allowing the process in place to go forward and ruled they had no standing to bring the lawsuit.
“I don’t think your clients get to speak for everybody,’’ Lewis said, before dismissing the case with prejudice, meaning the case was ended prematurely because it was brought in error. Anticipating an appeal, he added, “we’ll let the district court of appeal decide whether I’m right or not.”
The lawyer for plaintiffs, Shannon Goessling, immediately announced the group would appeal the case and, if they lose there, will take it to the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court if needed.
She said the justices “flout the law with impunity” when they stopped a hearing on the Senate redistricting case to complete their last minute paperwork.
Goessling said her clients are uniquely harmed because they oppose the judges and want them voted out of office. Goessling added that because no justice has ever lost a merit retention vote in Florida, her clients are now barred from their First Amendment right to ask the Judicial Qualifications Commission to put a qualified candidate on the ballot.
Lewis, however, dismissed that argument and said the plaintiffs were not entitled to sue to force the state to conclude the justices did not properly qualify to be on the ballot. He compared it to a citizen filing a lawsuit because another driver wasn’t stopped for speeding
“I understand your dilemma,’’ he said. “To be entitled to a declaration, you have to allege your interest is different than the public at large and I don’t think you have done that.”
Supporters of the justices, who attended the hearing, included some of the capital’s most prominent legal fire power — Barry Richard, who successfully argued Bush v. Gore on behalf of President Bush before the U.S. Supreme Court; Ron Meyer, a constitutional law expert who has represented many labor unions; and Sandy D’Alemberte, former dean of the Florida State University law school and former president of the American Bar Association.
“This obviously is a political attack,’’’ said D’Alemberte, calling it “very much a frivolous suit” intended as part of a years-long attempt by conservatives to purge the court and install like-minded, politically-sympathetic jurists.
A group of activists have formed a political committee to defend the court from the conservative group’s attacks, called Defend Justice From Politics. Another group, Restore Justice 2012 which enjoys the support of some Central Florida Tea Party groups, is encouraging people to vote against the justices in November.
If the case is appealed and ultimately makes it to the state’s high court, Lewis, Pariente and Quince would have to recuse themselves from the case and a rarely-used legal rules spelled out in the state Constitution would kick in. Article 5, Section 12 requires that a panel comprised of the seven senior-most circuit court judges in the state would be assembled to hear the appeal instead of the Florida Supreme Court.