As head of campaign to retain judges, former Justice Raoul Cantero presenting interesting dilemma for Supreme Court

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In late February, the committees spearheading campaigns for Florida Supreme Court Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince held a fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency Miami, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

At the top of the invitation to the event were the names of some of the co-chairmen of each of the justices’ campaigns, including former Justice Raoul Cantero, who heads up Pariente’s “committee of responsible persons” — essentially, the organization that will campaign to keep her when voters cast ballots in merit retention elections in November.

Less than two weeks later, Pariente wrote the decision for the 5-2 majority that struck down the Legislature’s redistricting plan for the state Senate. And on March 30, Cantero filed a “notice of appearance” with the court that he would be arguing on behalf of the Senate in favor of a second draft of the plan.

Cantero has also been hired by Florida Power & Light to represent the company in a fight before the Supreme Court over how to pay for nuclear power plants. He says there is nothing wrong with the arrangement.

“The law is clear that there’s no issue, that lawyers can represent parties in front of the court and be part of their campaign,” Cantero said in an interview Thursday.

The situation shows the delicate balance the justices face as they approach what is expected to be one of the most intense battles over the fate of judges on the high court in years. While the justices do not face other candidates, they must get a majority “yes” vote in retention elections.

At least one conservative group is openly gunning for Lewis, Pariente and Quince, the three justices that are up for retention this year and usually solid members of the court’s liberal majority.

Restore Justice 2012, the organization leading the charge, slams the justices as poster children for judicial activism. The group highlights their decision on a 2010 case that struck a referendum opposed to the federal health-care law from the ballot.

That decision sparked a short-lived campaign in 2010 that failed to push any of the targeted justices off the court — but held Justice Jorge Labarga to 59 percent of the vote, one of the smallest totals in years. It’s a number that both sides say should concern the justices.

“We certainly were able to make a lot of headway during that election,” said Jesse Phillip, president of Restore Justice.

Already, each of the justices’ campaigns has raised more than $150,000 — though the justices themselves are barred from asking for contributions. In a memo to the media meant to head off questions about the figures, a lawyer for the campaigns called the total “the most ever raised for a retention race.”

Supporters of the justices say the three don’t plan to unilaterally disarm.

“They don’t think the merit retention process was set up for that purpose, to allow in essence a political attack by people are not necessarily wedded to the truth,” the lawyer, Dan Stengle, said in an interview.

And the vast majority of the contributions to the justices so far have come from those in legal professions — meaning Cantero is likely to be only one of the attorneys supporting Pariente and others to argue a case before the court.

For his part, Cantero said he’s confident that his dual roles will not influence Pariente when he argues his cases before the Supreme Court.

“She’s very professional,” he said. “She knows how to distinguish between the two.”

Those opposing Cantero in the redistricting case, which is set to be argued April 20, also say they’re not worried about a common practice in a state where judges face the voters.

“That happens in every courtroom,” said Dan Gelber, counsel for Fair Districts Now. “Judges across Florida receive campaign contributions from litigants. … I don’t really see it as an issue that concerns me.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.