The Republican leaders in two police and firefighter unions warned Monday that their party’s attempt to oust three of Florida’s sitting Supreme Court justices is a “chilling’’ development that could lead to trouble for law enforcement.
“If successful, it could put active law enforcement officers in harm’s way,’’ said Jeff McAdams of the Gainesville Police Department, a Republican and the legislative chairman for the Fraternal Order of Police. “Any time the courts, our judicial system, is challenged in such a fashion to bring discredit upon it, the public loses trust in government.”
The Fraternal Order of Police joined with members of the Florida Professional Fire Fighters to speak out against the decision by the Republican Party of Florida last month to oppose three justices who are up for merit retention.
Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince go before voters for a yes or no vote in November. Voters must decide whether they should be allowed to stay on the bench and, for the first time since the merit retention system was begun in 1976, a political party has taken sides on the issue.
Republican Party officials cited a 2003 murder case that was overturned in 2004 by the U.S. Supreme Court as its primary reason for opposing the justices. The state GOP did not object to the ruling in 2006 when the same three justices were last up for merit retention.
“It’s politics, pure and simple,’’ said Nelson Cuba, president of Police Lodge 530 in Jacksonville, who is a Republican and a member of the Duval County Republican Executive Committee. He warned that Florida risks losing a system in which courts “make the right decision based on the law, not on politicians coming after them because they don’t like what they’re saying.”
The unions blamed Gov. Rick Scott for working in concert with conservative groups in an attempt to reshape the judiciary after a series of rulings in which Republican-led initiatives were knocked off the ballot. If the judges are removed, Scott would reappoint three replacements.
Just days after the party announced it would oppose the justices, Americans for Prosperity, affiliated with the conservative Koch brothers, launched a series of television ads targeting them for defeat. On Monday, another conservative group, Restore Justice 2012, announced it will also start airing television ads statewide.
“This is an effort to hijack the courts that we think is unacceptable,’’ said James Preston, president of the FOP, which represents 20,000 active and retired law enforcement personnel. “If these justices were inept or incompetent, that is for the citizens of Florida to decide, not a political party dragging up misleading information on a decade-old death penalty case.”
He noted that the murderer in the case, Joe Elton Nixon, is still on death row “waiting for Gov. Scott to sign a warrant.”
Cuba, a member of the Duval County GOP, disputed claims by state GOP chairman Lenny Curry that the decision came from the party’s grassroots, not by the governor. Cuba said he “never heard this talked about — not one time — at any of our local meetings.”
State GOP spokesman Brian Burgess immediately pushed back, defending the grassroots claim in a Tweet. The “GOP state executive board is made up of, and elected by, grass roots of party,” he wrote.
Burgess also criticized the unions for trying to take politics out of a system that many Republicans believe is already politicized.
“If you don’t like this system where people have free speech, what system would you prefer?” he asked.
Burgess, who was Scott’s chief spokesman until last month, suggested the unions have an inherent conflict of interest because they have a current case pending against the state, challenging the 2011 decision pushed by Scott that would lower pensions three percent to offset cuts in the budget.
The union officials said they are willing to live with whatever ruling the court makes, but challenged the governor, and other Republican elected officials, to speak up and tell voters where they stand on merit retention.
“We’ve taken the unprecedented stance of coming out on this issue because it’s an attack strictly on our judiciary,’’ said McAdams of Gainesville. “We’re not attacking the governor. We’re attacking the issues. We think the governor is well behind the issue.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas