Florida GOP opposes merit retention of State Supreme Court justices

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The Republican Party of Florida injected itself into a heated battle over the future of the state Supreme Court on Friday, issuing a brief statement saying the GOP opposes three justices who form the backbone of the court’s left-of-center majority, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The paragraph-long statement said the party’s executive board unanimously voted this week to oppose Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince in November’s retention elections. The justices do not face opponents, but must get the support of a majority of Floridians to hold onto their posts.

“While the collective evidence of judicial activism amassed by these three individuals is extensive, there is one egregious example that all Florida voters should bear in mind when they go to the polls on election day,” said the statement, issued by RPOF spokeswoman Kristen McDonald. “These three justices voted to set aside the death penalty for a man convicted of tying a woman to a tree with jumper cables and setting her on fire.”

McDonald appeared to be referring to the case of Joe Nixon, who was convicted in the 1984 murder of Jeanne Bickner in Leon County. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nixon in 2003 during one of several appeals, finding that his lawyer erred in essentially conceding Nixon’s guilt during the trial without a getting a statement of approval from Nixon. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision.

The statement did not say when, precisely, the RPOF board held its vote.

Supporters of the trio blasted the GOP move, portraying it as an effort by Republicans to seize control of the courts. If the justices get defeated, successors would be selected by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican.

“The Legislature wants to politicize the court so that it is no longer independent but the handmaiden of the Republican Legislature,” said Dick Batchelor, a former lawmaker with Defend Justice from Politics.

Groups like Batchelor’s have rallied to the justices’ side since an organization called Restore Justice 2012 began an effort to push Lewis, Pariente and Quince off the court. No sitting Supreme Court justice has ever lost a retention election.

Restore Justice and other groups say that the jurists are activist judges who have overstepped their power. But supporters of the judges say they have followed the law and that the merit retention elections are meant to remove justices for misconduct, not because of judicial philosophy.

“The announcement that the Republican Party is engaged in this effort would shock those wonderful Republican statesmen who helped create the merit selection and merit retention processes,” said Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former lawmaker and former president of the American Bar Association. “Surely we do not want to go back to the broken past.”

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.