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Courts can’t be caught in politics

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THE ISSUE: Conservative groups campaign to remove Supreme Court justices.
OUR OPINION: Politicizing court is a threat to justice.

Images of justice popular for more than 500 years have depicted Lady Justice as a blindfolded figure holding a balance scale, indicating that judges should rule without fear or favor, based only on the merit of arguments for and against a position.

This belief led reformers responding to political scandals in the state Supreme Court to promote a successful 1976 constitutional amendment intended to create a barrier around the court designed to prevent such scandals. The amendment ended election of higher court judges and calls for justices to be appointed on merit and then stand for a retention vote every six years.

However, this year the Florida Republican Party and the conservative political action group Americans for Prosperity, funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, have interjected politics into what should be a nonpartisan retention election of three Supreme Court justices by joining with a group called “Restore Justice 2012” led by an Orlando youth minister.

The targeted justices, Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and Fred Lewis, were appointed by former governor Lawton Chiles and have been previously retained in statewide elections. Under Florida law, judges must face a vote on whether to retain them or remove them every six years, and they are up for a retention vote this year.

According to Restore Justice 2012, these judges have been targeted because they are “judicial activists.”

But the examples cited by the organization appear more like decisions that were unpopular with some partisan groups than with judicial activism. According to a state Bar association survey of 7,857 lawyers in the state, the three had an average approval rating of 90 percent.

The campaign to oust the three justices has drawn the criticism of a variety of highly-respected Florida court authorities, including a resolution signed by 23 former presidents of the state Bar, calling it a “well-financed and ill-conceived political campaign” that if successful “could do irreparable damage to our system of judicial fairness and impartiality.”

The effort by political parties to get involved in a judicial retention election is a “colossal mistake,” according to Sandy D’Alemberte, a Tallahassee lawyer, former legislator and former president of the American Bar Association. As a state legislator, he was on the committee that worked for passage of the 1976 constitutional amendment aimed at keeping politics out of the state’s court system.

While not taking an advocacy position on whether individual judges should be retained, the Florida Bar is running a $300,000 campaign to educate voters about the judicial retention process, and has enlisted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to introduce a video on retention.

In that introduction, O’Connor says that for more than three decades, the merit retention system has helped buffer the state’s appellate courts from improper influence; and for the system to work, voters need to educate themselves and make informed decisions.

This is sound advice for voters. In a highly politicized environment, the last thing the state needs is for its highest court to become just another political institution. We are disappointed that some in the state are trying to make the judicial retention process a political football. We believe this is a threat to the independence and impartiality we expect from our state’s highest court.

We urge voters to ignore political appeals, educate themselves, and make informed decisions intended to encourage our state’s highest jurists to make their decisions free from fear or favor, and based solely on the merit of arguments for or against cases they are presented.