Keep politics out of justices’ retention

David Lucius McCain died of cancer in 1986, a fugitive three years on the run who had skipped out on a million-dollar bond rather than face trial on dope-smuggling charges. McCain had figured that a former Florida Supreme Court justice wouldn’t fare so well in prison.

Before McCain, using the alias Joe Rico, hatched an abortive plot to import 15 tons of Colombian marijuana, he had been the poster boy — one of them, anyway — for the corrupting influence of politics on the court in the early 1970s.

The widespread disgust with unethical behavior by Justice McCain and three of his fellow justices on that scandal-laden court inspired the reforms designed to insulate the court from unseemly political influences. It might be worth remembering the McCain era, now that a well-funded political action committee has injected low-down politics in the 2012 judicial merit-retention elections.

“When you let politics in the front door, ethics go out the back,” warned Martin Dyckman, the St. Petersburg Times (now known as the Tampa Bay Times) reporter who in 1973 exposed the rampant corruption on the popularly elected state supreme court. Dyckman, author of A Most Disorderly Court: Scandal and Reform in the Florida Judiciary, discovered that a utility lawyer had met with Justices Hal Dekle and Joseph A. Boyd — known as “Crazy Joe” — and slipped them a memorandum that “bore a striking resemblance” to the opinion Dekle eventually wrote in a multi-million dollar tax case decided in favor of Gulf Power.

The two committed a string of other ethical transgressions in their unseemly machinations to hold on to their popularly elected judicial posts. Dekle resigned rather than face impeachment. Boyd, a former Dade County commissioner who once described his only previous judicial experience as “judge in the Miss Opa-locka beauty contest,” somehow got off with a reprimand. Yet another justice resigned over a gambling junket to Las Vegas underwritten by Florida influence peddlers.

And then there was McCain, with his penchant for meddling in lower courts on behalf of his political supporters, including a bribery case against a Broward County union boss who just happened to have greased McCain with a $10,000 “donation.” (McCain later voted with a Supreme Court majority to let the man go.)

After his stint on the court, dope smuggling was hardly an ethical leap. But credit Justice McCain and his fellow political animals with creating the public disgust that gave us reforms to keep politics from undermining the Florida Supreme Court.

Four decades later, politics are back and threatening the court’s independence. The campaign to oust Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince has been bankrolled by right-wing activists offended by a court decision to throw out a piece of anti-Obamacare legislation. It’s all about politics. And a perversion of a retention system designed to get rid of the corrupt and inept. Not to punish judges who fail to reckon with the political winds.

“No one has accused these judges of incompetence or dishonesty,” Dyckman said Wednesday. “All this is just to give Rick Scott three appointments and give him control of the court.”