On behalf of two Florida residents, Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF) and Tallahassee attorney Eric S. Haug today filed a complaint in the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County against Florida Secretary of State Kenneth Detzner, in his official capacity, and Florida Supreme Court Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente, and Peggy A. Quince individually. The complaintasks the court to prohibit Secretary of State Detzner from placing the three Justices on the statewide ballot for retention election in November.
The complaint, Bernard Long and Veronico L. “Ron” Flores v. Kenneth Detzner, R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente, and Peggy A. Quince, can be downloaded here.
he high-profile, months-long controversy surrounding the alleged failure of the three Justices to comply with Florida election law and judicial canons has spurred a recently opened investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, following an early June request by Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
In May, Rep. Scott Plakon Plakon wrote a letter to Scott to look into reports that Lewis, Pariente and Quince had court employees notarize two documents in a last-minute scramble to file papers necessary to make sure the trio appeared on the ballot.
Critics have questioned whether that violates a ban on candidates using state employees “in furtherance of his or her candidacy.” Any violation of that law is a first-degree misdemeanor.
“We have a responsibility to the people of Florida to see that our laws are followed by all, regardless of status or position,” Plakon wrote.
After the first reports earlier this week that the papers were prepared during an unexplained hour-long break in oral arguments in the redistricting case last Friday, an attorney for the justices’ retention campaigns insisted that some of the documents were required to be filed in the normal course of business and weren’t actually electioneering documents.
In a statement, attorney Dan Stengle suggested justices are different because they are appointed, not directly elected, and that there was nothing inappropriate about the way the documents were handled.
“Any documents that they are required to file by virtue of their positions as appellate judges or justices to qualify for merit retention are part of routine court business, and these documents have been universally and historically handled in this manner,” Stengle said. “Notarizing signatures is a ministerial duty and it is standard practice for court staff to notarize the signatures on such documents.”
Today’s lawsuit disputes Stengle’s interpretation.
“On behalf of our clients, Florida attorney Eric Haug and attorneys with Southeastern Legal Foundation reviewed all available information about the ongoing controversies surrounding the merit retention election filings and fundraising by Florida Supreme Court Justices Lewis, Pariente and Quince and determined that the best and only course of action was to file today’s court action in Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit,” said Shannon L. Goessling, executive director and chief legal counsel of Southeastern Legal Foundation. “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. 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 relief sought by the citizens of Florida in this case is based on alleged criminal conduct that, but for the criminal conduct, the Justices would not have qualified. We are seeking judicial intervention where the Secretary of State will not intervene and the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission does not have exclusive jurisdiction,” Goessling noted. “The citizens have a right to a full inquiry to determine whether criminal acts were committed and subject to the results of that inquiry, seek an order removing them from the list of qualified candidates and removal from the ballot.”
“As a constitutional public interest law firm with strong ties to, and a history of litigating in, Florida, Southeastern Legal Foundation enters this court action with the single objective to ensure that public confidence in the rule of law and the integrity of the judicial and election systems in Florida is vindicated and strengthened,” Goessling continued. “We do not enter this action to score political points, but rather to strengthen public confidence that the laws of the state apply equally and fully.”
When asked by Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout about the lawsuit, Gov. Scott replied, “It’s the Supreme Court, you think they would comply with the law.”