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Pound Civil Justice Institute

Florida Supreme Court Justices Face Partisan Anti-Retention Campaigns

This election season, three Florida Supreme Court justices with impressive records as unbiased interpreters of the law are being forced into the often dirty game of partisan politics.  Justices Barbara J. Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, and Peggy A. Quince are up for “merit retention” votes this November, giving Florida voters the choice to keep them on the bench—or to open the door to a power grab by politicians and political organizations who want the Court to reflect their ideological agendas.
Florida’s merit retention system, which was approved by Florida voters in 1976, requires justices to stand for a yes-or-no retention vote on statewide ballots in the general election following their appointment, and then every six years after their first retention.  The justices on the ballot this year have each been retained multiple times since their appointments over 13 years ago.

Previously, retention votes have been virtual formalities, with Florida voters retaining judges in every election.  Not so with this year’s vote, which is expected to be one of the most hotly contested—and expensive—in Florida’s history.

Rather than being able to rest on the valuable impartiality that traditionally accompanies judiciary appointments and ensures blind justice, Justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince must now reluctantly campaign to keep their spots on the bench in the face of an anti-retention drive led by fringe political factions seeking to purge specific justices for their various rulings.  

In recent years, outside spending groups and PACs have begun targeting statewide judicial votes, looking to oust judges who have ruled on contentious issues in ways that differ from their views.  This year, Florida could be targeted because the three justices up for retention have defined their careers making tough but fair calls that were sometimes unpopular that some outside spending groups and PACs have opposed.     

This means that a single rich benefactor or interest group willing to further fund the efforts of certain political elements could unseat Justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince, giving lobbyists and legislators the opportunity to rebuild the court in accordance with their own political agendas and those of the special interest groups writing the biggest checks.  If this happens, the Florida Supreme Court may become a political free-for-all, with objective jurisprudence—and the future of Florida’s government—hanging in the balance.

Other states have already seen the frightful impact of forcing election-style retention votes on non-partisan officials.  Heavy political spending in Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas has patently marred judicial processes and resulted in diminished court impartiality that is widely documented.  A report by the Center for American Progress noted, “The high courts that have seen the most campaign spending are much more likely to rule in favor of big businesses and against individuals who have been injured, scammed, or subjected to discrimination.”  

What’s at stake is the future of our democracy, in Florida and across the nation.  Justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince have each faithfully upheld the law throughout their terms, and the retention of their seats is crucial to preserving the integrity of Florida’s legal system.  To learn more about the Justices’ records, and for information regarding merit retention in Florida, visit www.floridasupremecourt.org.

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