Florida’s Supreme Court justices decide cases based on the state’s Constitution, not on what’s politically correct, expedient or popular. The state Constitution calls for a “fair and independent judiciary,” and that’s what we have because Florida justices aren’t elected, but appointed. This wise process allows the justices to be independent of political influences and special-interest blocs.
Now there’s a movement afoot to cripple Florida’s independent courts and force Supreme Court justices to bend with the political winds. If this movement succeeds, Floridians can wave goodbye to that precious “fair and independent judiciary.” The movement to remove three justices is being led by conservative Republicans, and while it has been strongly rebuked by lawyers and former Supreme Court justices appointed by at least two former GOP governors, the state’s top elected Republicans are staying on the sidelines,.
At the risk of seeing the state’s independent judiciary be gutted during their watch, Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz must speak out against this unwarranted removal campaign.
Florida Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor after being screened by a panel of legal experts. Every six years they come up for a statewide merit retention vote, and when they make decisions on the bench that are unpopular with one special interest or another, they can become vulnerable to politicized efforts to remove them.
So it is with Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, whose names are on the retention ballot in November. The Florida Bar poll of its members registered high rankings for all three justices, approval ratings from 89 to 92 percent. No matter. The three ran afoul of Republican and conservative groups opposed to the federal Affordable Healthcare Act. They are being targeted because the state Supreme Court struck down a constitutional amendment proposed by the Legislature that would have been a referendum on the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.
The court ruled that the nonbinding amendment included a misleading summary because it made numerous promises, such as ensuring “access to healthcare services without waiting lists.” When the Legislature subsequently acknowledged that the summary was misleading, it asked the court to replace the text of the amendment in the summary. The court majority then ruled that it did not have the authority to do that.
All this was decided based on the Florida Constitution. It’s the Legislature, not the court, that makes laws and writes proposed constitutional amendments. It rewrote the proposed amendment, which is on the November ballot and deserves a No vote. Nevertheless, the court’s rightful rulings have riled Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group affiliated with the Koch brothers, big-time GOP donors. The Republican group began a statewide campaign targeting the three justices up for retention.
This is, as Justice Lewis recently told the Hillsborough County Bar Association, a “frontal assault on the state’s judiciary” by “partisan politics” that should alarm all Floridians. “There is an entire branch of government to protect and defend. We cannot sacrifice fairness and impartiality and the court system to political whims.”
The anti-justices campaign is modeled on a 2010 effort in Iowa that unseated three state Supreme Court justices. In its TV ads, Americans for Prosperity accuses the three Florida justices of advocating “activist” and liberal views.
Nonsense. The three targeted justices’ views have been retained by majority votes twice, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t win a third term.
State Republican leaders must put the integrity of the state’s court system before partisan politics, in this instance by repudiating the unwarranted assault by Americans for Prosperity on Justices Lewis, Pariente and Quince. The Herald recommends: Vote Yes to retain the three justices.