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Updated: 09/27/2012 08:01:27AM

Republican Party inserts itself into justice retention

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We’ve been guardedly optimistic in recent years by signs that many of the state’s residents are becoming more plugged in and educated about everything from the Constitution to the nuts-and-bolts of electoral process. As Thomas Jefferson rightly said, “Democracy demands an educated and informed electorate.”

We’ve been pessimistic about how Florida Republican politicians, especially those in the Legislature would behave given the supermajorities they enjoy in both houses. That pessimism has been unfortunately confirmed by a series of self-dealing scandals, budgetary trickery, voter suppression efforts and, most recently, by an effort this year to turn the state Constitution into a vehicle for inserting ideological priorities into what is supposed to be a framework for flexible self-government.

While each of the transgressions committed by an unhinged and unaccountable Legislature should alarm even conservative Floridians, there is under way an even more naked assault on the “checks and balances” built into Florida’s constitution. The Republican Party of Florida executive board voted on Friday to oppose the merit retention of Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince on Nov. 6, giving official party imprimatur to a third-party campaign financed by a shadowy group called Restore Justice and a billionaire-backed PAC.

The campaign is the fulfillment of a warning former Florida Bar Association President Scott Hawkins gave the Sun during an editorial board visit last November. Make no mistake, any separation between the Republicans in the Legislature and the RPOF is mere paperwork. The pushback against the Supreme Court is directly linked to decisions by the court to remove several constitutional amendments from the ballot in 2010, including one that was a blatant attempt to confuse voters about a different redistricting amendment that was also on the ballot. The campaign is now clearly in violation of any reasonable fealty to the wisdom of separation of powers inherent in the state and U.S. Constitution.

The RPOF vote drew criticism from across the political spectrum, including former Republican state Sen. Alex Villalobos, who told the Palm Beach Post, “No party has any business getting involved in this.”

One of the three justices targeted last week gave an unusually frank rebuttal to the campaign, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“There is an entire branch of government to protect and defend. We cannot sacrifice fairness and impartiality and the court system to political whims,” said Justice Fred Lewis. The Times also reported that Americans for Prosperity, the political action committee backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, was buying television advertising highlighting Supreme Court decisions. There’s no problem with informing voters about the record of our chief judges, but part of that education should include the political and ideological motives of their detractors.

The other two targeted justices are Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince. Lewis and Pariente were appointed by former Gov. Lawton Chiles, while Quince was jointly appointed by Chiles and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Florida Supreme Court justices are appointed by governors upon the screening and recommendation of the Judicial Qualification Commission. Every six years, their names appear on the ballot where voters mark Yes or No for retention. Lewis, Pariente and Quince have twice been retained by voters.

One of the most prominent opponents of the RPOF move is Stanley Tate, a Republican member of the qualification commission, who told the Times, “Any good attorney will tell you they want their judge to be a good attorney, not a good Republican. I’m hoping the general public will disavow the decision by the Republican Party. I think they made a mistake.”

Florida is a state of laws. We weaken the state by imposing partisan politics on judicial decisions. Unfortunately, in Florida it is yet another example of a majority party that believes it is beyond reproach or accountability. We trust our educated voters will teach them a lesson.