TALLAHASSEE (AP) — Gov. Rick Scott could get a chance to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court.
A conservative legal group on Monday filed a lawsuit that aims to block three Florida Supreme Court justices from getting new six-year terms on the court.
Voters this fall are supposed to decide whether to keep Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince on the bench.
But the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which filed suit on behalf of two Florida residents, contends that three justices did not properly fill out their election-related paperwork and did not follow state law. The group is asking a Leon County circuit judge to order state election officials to remove their names from the November ballot.
“As has been the case with other candidates for high office in Florida and elsewhere, the laws and rules that govern elections and public disclosures are designed to provide public accountability and sometimes result in disqualification from the ballot,” said Shannon Goessling, executive director of the foundation. “For those in the legal profession in public office, particularly judges, there is an additional, heightened duty to follow the rules to the fullest extent because we ask judges to determine what the law is.”
The campaigns of the three justices called the lawsuit a “headline hunt” and said it was part of “organized efforts” to defeat the justices “based on politics and not their qualifications.” The Southeastern Legal Foundation is the same group that pushed to have President Bill Clinton give up his law license.
“We are confident that the voters will see through these political attacks and vote to retain these extraordinarily well-qualified justices on our Supreme Court,” said a statement issued by the co-chairs of the campaigns of the three justices.
In Florida, appeals judges and supreme court justices are appointed by the governor. But instead of running for re-election, they are subject to an up-or-down merit retention vote.
The three justices nearly missed the deadline to qualify for the ballot in April. The seven-member court abruptly put a hearing on hold for more than an hour to allow the justices to finish their paperwork and turn it in to state elections officials with just minutes to spare.
The justices wound up using court employees to notarize the paperwork. A state law prohibits candidates for office from using state employees to help their campaign during working hours, although it is unclear if that law applies to judges. A violation of the law is a misdemeanor.
After a state legislator complained the Florida Department of Law Enforcement earlier this month opened an investigation.
Attorneys for the justices contend that they did nothing wrong and called the use of the employees routine. Election records from 2010 show that four justices on the ballot that year also had their paperwork notarized by court employees.
Chris Cate, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kent Detzner, said that the department has not yet seen the lawsuit. But he pointed out that state election officials have a “ministerial” role in processing election-related paperwork.
The three justices named in the lawsuit have drawn the ire of Republicans, including Scott. Two of the justices were appointed by the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles; Quince was jointly appointed by Chiles and then-incoming-Gov. Jeb Bush.
In 2010, the state Supreme Court removed from the ballot three constitutional amendments pushed by the GOP-controlled Legislature including a “health care freedom” amendment that would have made it illegal in Florida to have a health insurance mandate. Legislators reworked the amendment in 2011 and placed it on this year’s ballot.
Scott did not comment directly on the lawsuit Monday. But he said he said the justices should be required to follow the law.
“It’s the Supreme Court, you think they would comply with the law,” Scott said.
That remark drew a sharp response from Dan Gelber, a former state legislator and prosecutor who ran unsuccessfully two years ago for attorney general. He called Scott a “bully” by taking aim at the justices.
“It’s beneath the office for him to make these sophomoric accusations at another branch of government,” Gelber said.
Associated Press writer Brent Kallestad contributed to this report.
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