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Thursday, Jul 27, 2017
Editorials

Stop assault on the Florida courts

Floridians have many important races to decide in November, including the presidency and a U.S. senate seat. But arguably the most important issues concern whether three state Supreme Court justices keep their jobs after being targeted by the Republican Party of Florida and certain conservative groups, and a proposed constitutional amendment whose title, "State Courts," seems innocent. Both represent a blatant assault on the state's judicial system. Voters should not let themselves be pawns. The integrity of a branch of government is at stake. There is nothing conservative about destroying an independent judiciary, so that it will meekly follow the whims of whoever is in power. Voters will be asked "yes" or "no" on whether state Supreme Court Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente and Peggy A. Quince should be retained. (In the Tampa Bay area, voters also will decide the same questions regarding 2nd District Court of Appeal judges Anthony K. Black, Darryl C. Casanueva, Charles A. Davis Jr. and Edward C. LaRose.)
This is called "merit retention," a system Florida voters put in place in 1976 after corruption and scandal plagued the state's high courts. The judges are appointed by the governor after a thorough vetting process by a committee of lawyers and other residents. The system has worked well, enabling the judiciary to maintain independence — and not become another political branch of government. And it has prevented self-interested politicians from intimidating the court. But now the court system is in danger of being heavily politicized. The state Republican Party and outsiders are working to defeat the three state Supreme Court justices simply because they disagree with some of their decisions. They clearly want Gov. Rick Scott to replace them for political reasons. Voters should be appalled. Merit retention is not about whether you agree with the court's opinions. It is about qualifications, knowledge and impartiality. Appellate courts and individual judges and justices routinely disagree, which is why decisions often are appealed to another level. This is how our judicial system works. Justices Lewis, Pariente and Quince carry out their duties with integrity, professionalism and impartiality. We don't agree with all of their decisions, including some of the ones the state GOP is attacking. But those decisions represent a fraction of their rulings. They have done absolutely nothing to warrant a "no" vote in November. They have strictly followed judicial canons mandating that they "not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism." It is the state Republican Party that should be taken to the woodshed by voters. The party already controls both branches of the Legislature, the Cabinet and the governor's mansion. Yet now it wants to control the Supreme Court? Surely, voters do not want Supreme Court justices to make decisions based strictly on politics or out of fear of being targeted by a major political party. Republicans would rightly howl if the Democrats tried such a brazen stunt. All voters should remember how an independent judiciary provides individuals protection against political intimidation. ***** Amendment 5 is another blatantly political power grab. It would require state Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominees. This would severely weaken a well-functioning judicial nominating system and give lawmakers the means to reject qualified candidates when they disagree with them about ideological issues — something they should not have the power to do. The amendment also would allow the Legislature to easily repeal rules adopted by the Supreme Court for the operation of all courts, further threatening the judiciary's independence. Lawmakers would be able to repeal a court rule by a simple majority vote of both chambers, instead of the currently required two-thirds votes. Where is the evidence such a change is needed? There is none. It is a shameful attempt by certain lawmakers to control the court system — a payback of sorts for past rulings. Voters should resent these efforts to politicize the court system. They should vote to retain the Florida Supreme Court justices and 2nd District judges and send Amendment 5 to the trash can, where it belongs.
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