Impartial justice at risk
The New York Times said in a recent editorial:
The success of right-wing forces two years ago in ousting three Iowa Supreme Court justices for participating in a unanimous ruling that allowed same-sex marriage has inspired similar efforts there and elsewhere in the country this fall.
In Iowa, the Republican Party is working hard to defeat another capable justice, David Wiggins, who participated in the same ruling and is facing a yes-or-no retention vote on November’s ballot. Last week, the socially conservative National Organization for Marriage, which played a large role in the outcome in 2010, began running television ads against the judge.
Unfortunately, Iowa is not alone. Another attempted hijacking of what are supposed to be nonpolitical retention elections — essentially referendums focused on a judge’s competence and honesty — is gathering steam in Florida. The state has not removed a sitting Supreme Court justice in 40 years, but this year three worthy justices standing for retention — Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and R. Fred Lewis — may not survive an onslaught from the political right.
The three judges, the only Democratic appointees on Florida’s seven-member top court, are being targeted for various rulings that have angered conservatives, among them a 2010 decision that quite rightly struck from the ballot a misleadingly worded constitutional amendment designed to allow the state to opt out of federal health care reform.
The barrage began in June when the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott — who would name the judges’ replacements if they lost — ordered up a phony and politically motivated investigation into the judges’ innocuous use of court personnel to notarize required financial disclosure filings. Meanwhile, an advocacy group financed by the Koch brothers, Americans for Prosperity, has begun running television advertisements in several Florida cities criticizing the court’s ruling on the constitutional amendment. The group says it is planning new ads focusing on other cases, all with the goal of framing three judicial moderates as out-of-control “judicial activists.”
Piling on, the Florida Republican Party’s executive committee officially announced its opposition to the judges two weeks ago.
To justify its decision, the party dredged up a nine-year-old court order to retry a murder case on technical grounds — an order later rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court — as evidence that the justices are “too extreme.” An Orlando-based group with ties to the tea party, Restore Justice 2012, continuing a grass-roots campaign against the justices that began two years ago, released a video last week focusing on that same ruling.
The three Florida justices are mounting active campaigns. They have raised about $1 million collectively, a reluctant but realistic concession to the need to fight back. Even so, and despite the support of 23 past presidents of the Florida Bar Association, the fire and police unions, and some prominent state Democrats, their retention is by no means assured.
What is absolutely certain is the damaging message of intimidation that would flow from their removal.