The Republican Party of Florida is injecting itself into this year’s state Supreme Court elections.
The party’s executive board last week voted to oppose three justices who are seeking a new six-year term through an up or down vote on the Nov. 6 ballot. In a statement, the party labeled the justices “liberal” and called them “too extreme” for the state.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has been critical of the high court, would replace any of the justices who are ousted.
It is believed to be the first time that a political party has taken an active role in urging the defeat of justices since Florida put in its in current system of judicial elections nearly four decades ago. Those backing the justices called it a move to “highjack” the independence of the court.
The move by the party comes at the same time that the high court is poised to decide the fate of Scott’s bid to change the state’s pension plan by forcing public employees to contribute 3 percent of their salary to help pay for their retirement plan.
Justices Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis were appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. Justice Peggy Quince was jointly appointed by Chiles and Republican Jeb Bush when he was governor-elect.
The three justices have already come under fire from some Republicans angered by several high-profile court decisions, including one blocking from the 2010 ballot a constitutional amendment that was aimed at blunting the impact of the federal health care overhaul. Lawmakers reworded the amendment and put it on this year’s ballot.
Kristen McDonald, a spokeswoman for the party, pointed not at that decision but one by the court in 2003 to order a new trial for Joe Elton Nixon.
Florida prosecutors say Nixon kidnapped a woman from a Tallahassee mall in 1984 and then tied her to trees with jumper cables and set her on fire. Facing substantial evidence against Nixon, his lawyer offered unsuccessfully to plea-bargain for life imprisonment before deciding to concede the man’s guilt at the beginning of trial.
The state Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, concluded that the lawyer did not effectively represent Nixon. The state court decision, however, was set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court in a decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court voted, unanimously, to throw out their legal opinion, raises serious questions as to their competence to understand the law and serve on the bench, and demonstrates that all three justices are too extreme not just for Florida, but for America, too,” McDonald said in a statement.
The Florida Supreme Court did reconsider again the Nixon case in 2006, but this time the court rejected the request for a new trial.
It’s not clear, however, if the decision by the party is a symbolic one, or is the prelude to a serious opposition campaign.
The judges already were being opposed by a conservative group called Restore Justice that was created two years ago to campaign against the retention of Justices Jorge LaBarga and James Perry. Restore Justice has not raised a lot of money while the justices have raised more than $1 million for their retention campaigns.
Brian Burgess, a spokesman for the party, said the party would not discuss “strategy” on what it plans to do.
Backers of the justices said they were “shocked” at the decision by the Republican Party to oppose their retention.
Dick Batchelor, a former state legislator, called it a “political power grab in our state’s highest court.”
“It’s obvious that the Scott-led radical Republicans will stop at nothing to dictate to the courts,” Batchelor said.
Florida adopted the nonpartisan merit-retention system for justices and appellate judges in the 1970s as a way of distancing the judicial system from politics.
Voters so far have never removed a justice or judge.
Associated Press writer Bill Kaczor contributed to this report.