Three Florida Supreme Court justices easily won a retention bid Tuesday despite an unprecedented push by the Republican Party of Florida to oust them after several rulings the party disliked.
Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince each led about 67 percent to 33 percent with about 80 percent of the precincts reporting.
The Republican Party’s executive committee had unanimously voted to oppose the three, warning they are “liberal” and “too extreme.” It marks the first time a Florida political party has taken a position in a retention race.
“The very foundation of Florida’s independent judicial system was threatened in this election. I am grateful that Florida voters once again demonstrated their faith in our fair and impartial judicial system,” Lewis said in a statement Tuesday.
The justices’ supporters, including some prominent Republicans, said the GOP is endangering judicial independence and that the three have done nothing that deserves removal.
“Floridians care deeply about ensuring that we have a fair and impartial judiciary untainted by partisan politics,” Quince said in a statement.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has been critical of the high court, would have appointed replacements from candidates recommended by a nominating panel, also appointed by the governor.
Brian Burgess, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, said in an email they “knew it was an uphill battle” especially after the justices raised millions of dollars.
Several high-profile court decisions by the justices have angered Republicans, including one blocking a constitutional amendment from the 2010 ballot 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.
The GOP also accused the justices of “activism” after they overturned Republican Gov. Jeb Bush’s private school voucher program in 2006 and ordered a new trial for a convicted killer. That ruling was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices’ backers said Republicans were trying to “highjack” the independence of the court by politicizing the retention elections. They fear a repeat of what happened in Iowa two years ago when a late infusion of out-of-state money helped defeat three justices over a 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in that state.
The Florida chapter of the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans for Prosperity, a group formed by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, ran ads criticizing a pair of Supreme Court rulings dealing with the state’s opposition to the national health care overhaul and property rights. It is also urged voters to sign a petition asking the justices to “stop legislating from the bench.”
The justices also drew opposition from Restore Justice 2012, which grew out of a similar tea party-related organization that unsuccessfully campaigned against two justices in 2010.
Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Pariente and Lewis in 1997 and 1998, respectively. He jointly named Quince with Republican Jeb Bush, then governor-elect, in 1998.
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.