Florida justices fighting against tyranny of the minority

10/20/2012 3:14 PM

10/21/2012 5:10 PM

The Bill of Rights was created to counter what our Founding Fathers called the “tyranny of the majority.” But in Florida, there’s the tyranny of the minority, too, scorching a pants-on-fire path to the Supreme Court, trying to make a cockamamie case that three justices are unfit to be retained by voters.

Pumped up by its control of the governor’s office, the cabinet and the state Legislature, the Republican Party of Florida now is going after the three state justices who are up for retention by voters on Nov. 6: R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince.

The party’s campaign to fire the justices is unprecedented, and it has rocked the legal community and left key GOP elected officials, like Attorney General Pam Bondi and Jeff Atwater, the state’s chief financial officer, straddling for a no comment. “I don’t know if it’s the best place for the party to be,” Atwater told the Associated Press.

Well, Mr. Atwater, you should know. And so should Ms. Bondi. The courts are a separate and equal branch of our government, not an arm of the ruling party as happens in dictatorships. By all means, let the voters decide, but don’t inject partisan politics into a decision that should be based on competence and following the rule of law, not catering to partisan mandates.

Six former justices — including two who were appointed by Republican governors (Cuban-American Raoul Cantero, appointed by Jeb Bush, among them) — have been getting out the word that the GOP’s assault on the judiciary is dangerous to our democracy. The Florida Bar and past presidents from the American Bar Association have all weighed in, warning of this assault.

Even Justice James Perry has gotten into the fray, writing an op-ed recently for The Miami Herald . Justices’ “ability to be fair and impartial and at times make unpopular decisions ensures that all three legs of the stool — the legislative, executive, and judicial branches — remain in balance,” he wrote after facing attacks himself two years ago during a retention race.

And former U.S. attorneys from Miami — Roberto “Bob” Martinez and Marcos Jimenez, both Republicans — and former Monroe County Sheriff Allison DeFoor also have tried to pull their party out of this assault, warning in a letter to the GOP that retention elections “should not be turned into partisan political affairs.”

Predictably, Florida’s GOP chief, Lenny Curry, calls the criticism “nonsense. The charge of injecting politics into what is already an issue before the voters is nonsense of the highest order.”

Curry points to the justices raising $1 million in their defense, which is diabolically funny since the only reason groups defending the justices have been forced to raise the big bucks is to battle a coordinated campaign by tea party groups and now the state GOP to oust them and open up three judicial seats for tea party Gov. Rick Scott.

Rich in irony, considering that Scott won without capturing the majority of the vote, but simply a plurality.

Florida is such a transient state that many people don’t know or understand why we get to vote every six years to retain appellate judges and Supreme Court justices. The reforms were approved by voters statewide in 1976 after a series of corruption scandals involving justices “writing” briefs prepared by lobbyists for special interests and campaign supporters. At least one justice took a junket to Vegas and two justices were accused of trying to put the fix on cases in lower courts. One justice flushed evidence down the toilet.

None of today’s justices has been accused of anything — except by Republican partisans upset that the justices didn’t vote for their side but based their decision on the law. If they were wrong, as happens because judges are human and not infallible, then the U.S. Supreme Court can weigh in, as has happened in a few cases, and send the case back to the Florida Supremes to reconsider. The system works. Why mess with it?

The difference between the pre-1970s reforms and today is that justices simply ran for election and had to campaign on political positions. Didn’t matter if they had little legal experience — popularity could get them into office, period. Under the reforms, Supreme Court justices and appellate judges are selected under a rigorous process that looks into their knowledge of the law, their past legal work, their demeanor and their experience. The names, selected by a panel appointed by the Florida Bar and the governor, are then sent to the governor.

Is there politics in that process? Sure, but it’s not a popularity contest, like elections can be, and the proof of its working is that in the last 30-plus years no appellate judge or justice has been accused of the type of corrupt shenanigans that used to occur.

The bottom line is that the GOP is unhappy with the Supremes for rulings that didn’t go the way they wanted and for striking down in the past couple of years some proposed constitutional amendments that the GOP-led Legislature wanted put on the ballot. The justices found the language in those amendments was unclear and did not meet constitutional muster. Partisan stalwarts took that to mean the court was playing politics.

The GOP’s tactic though is to pretend that these justices have been soft on crime and let out killers when that’s simply not so.

The GOP’s Curry, for his part, told The Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas recently, “This is a battle of ideas, a different world view.’’

No, sir, it’s not different. It’s the “world view” exhibited by the Taliban, the tyranny of the minority.

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