TALLAHASSEE -- The host committee for the campaign fundraiser at the DoubleTree Hotel here in June included former Gov. Reubin Askew, five former Supreme Court justices and some of Floridas most prominent lawyers and lobbyists.
But unlike most Tallahassee political gatherings, the beneficiaries were not politicians. They were three justices of the Florida Supreme Court: R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince, who each face yes or no votes in next months statewide merit retention election.
The justices have now rid their robes to play politics in response to what has become the most politically-charged merit retention election in state history. They are fighting for their judicial lives as they fend off attacks from several conservative groups who want them booted from the high courts bench.
In Florida, tea party groups and the Republican Party of Florida are targeting justices, with one conservative group even financing television ads.
To combat the attacks, the justices have hired political consultants, created web sites and established political committees to raise money. Their supporters have raised at least $330,000 for each justice more than most candidates running for the state House.
The once sleepy, non-partisan, merit retention campaigns are now expensive political battles.
We had to speak out and educate, otherwise the attacks would go unanswered, Quince explained to voters at a forum at Florida State University College of Law on Friday.
Unlike other politicians, who can defend themselves against criticism, the judicial canons in Florida prohibit justices from soliciting donations and they often cannot talk about the cases for which they are being condemned.
Its like having two hands tied behind your back and one leg, said Pariente, a 15-year veteran of the court. Were not politicians. All we can promise to do is be fair and impartial.
To do their talking and raise their money, the justices have created Committees of Responsible Persons. For the first time ever, a 527 a tax-exempt political organization has also been formed to run television ads in their defense.
Republican leaders say they are angry with what they contend are political rulings from the high court. In the last two years, the court has rejected several ballot amendments drafted by the Republican-led Legislature and overturned a handful of controversial laws. The successful ouster of the three justices would give Republican Gov. Rick Scott the opportunity to select replacements.
This is a battle of ideas, a different world view, said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
The partys executive committee voted unanimously last month to oppose the justices after remaining silent in every merit retention election since the system was established in 1976.
It is a reflection of frustration, Curry said. People want their voice to be heard and they feel like it hasnt been heard for too many years.
How many resources the party will devote to defeating the justices is still unknown. Curry said his focus is on the slate of Republican candidates, not on steering money into the merit retention campaign. But the partys slate card will include a recommendation to voters to oppose Lewis, Pariente and Quince.