News & Election Videos

Askew joins Fla. merit retention education push

Bill Kaczor

The Florida Bar on Monday launched a public awareness campaign to inform voters of the state's merit retention process amid growing conservative opposition to three Florida Supreme Court justices.

Former Gov. Reubin Askew, considered the father of merit retention for justices and appellate court judges in Florida, took part in a news conference to announce the $300,000 campaign. The League of Women Voters of Florida and Florida State University President Emeritus Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former American Bar Association president, also are participating.

Voters in 1976 adopted a state constitutional amendment that calls for an up-or-down vote on each of the jurists every six years. None have been turned out since then, but if that should happen the governor would appoint a replacement.

"Our government can't work if you do not have an independent and competent judiciary," said Askew, the state's Democratic governor from 1971 to 1979. "It is the best system that's been devised for fairness."

Bar president-elect Gwyenne Young, a Tampa lawyer, noted that the bar's research shows nearly 90 percent of Florida voters don't know what merit retention is and sometimes skip it on the ballot for that reason.

"What we've done this year, because we've seen a trend of challenges to the judiciary, we've recognized that we need to sort of kick-start and uptick our education process," Young said.

The justices up for retention votes this year _ R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince _ are facing opposition from Restore Justice 2012,

The group contends on its website that the three are practitioners of "judicial activism," describing it as "one of the greatest threats to freedom that exists in our country and state."

It cites the high court's 5-2 decision removing a proposed state constitutional amendment from the 2012 ballot that would have let voters express opposition to the federal health care overhaul. The majority ruled that the ballot summary was misleading. The state conceded that point but argued that the high court should substitute the actual text of the amendment for the flawed summary.

State law then did not provide a mechanism for such a switch but has since been changed to permit the attorney general to rewrite a defective summary or title. The Republican-controlled Legislature, meanwhile, placed a similar measure on the 2012 ballot with a revised summary. It has not been challenged.

Restore Justice 2012 spokesman Jesse Phillips criticized the public awareness campaign in a statement, as well as fundraising by the three justices.

"Today, the community which has injected an unprecedented near half-million dollars into the retention races ironically held a press conference to warn about politicizing the court," Phillips said. "We agree that the vote is in our court, and look forward to November when responsible citizens will decide whether or not to retain the Justices based on their record of decisions."

A similar group two years ago opposed retaining the other two justices who ruled against the 2010 amendment, James Perry and Jorge Labarga. Voters kept both. Restore Justice 2012 also is critical of a 2000 high court ruling that struck down a death penalty amendment after voters had approved it.

As Florida governor, Askew voluntarily gave up his authority to make unfettered judicial appointments. Instead, he created judicial nominating commissions, which submit nonpartisan slates of nominees for each position. As a state senator, Askew sponsored a bill to make judicial elections nonpartisan only to see it vetoed by then-Gov. Claude Kirk. The Legislature passed the bill again after Askew unseated Kirk, and he signed it into law.

Askew then pushed for the merit retention amendment, which also did away with head-to-head elections for justices and appellate judges at a time when the Florida Supreme Court was wracked by scandal. One justice retired after being filmed on a trip to Las Vegas and two others resigned after being impeached by the Florida House on charges of interceding in cases to help friends.

"If not merit retention, what?" Askew asked. "We were in an absolute mess."

Bar President Scott Hawkins, a West Palm Beach attorney who will turn his gavel over to Young on July 1, said voters should consider a jurist's entire record including demeanor, preparation, scholarship and reversal record. Those are some of the factors that lawyers are asked to consider in bar surveys conducted for the retention elections.

"Taking one decision and using that as a bellwether for how you decided, I question whether that's a judicious way to assess merit," Hawkins said.

He noted that bad judges usually are removed or disciplined by the court system itself through the Judicial Qualifications Commission or by the impeachment process before they come up for merit retention. In some instances accused judges resign before final action is taken.

Askew, though, said people do have a right to decide on a single issue.

"What we wanted to do was depoliticize it to the extent that you can," Askew said, adding that he opposed the federal system of appointing judges and justices for life.

Besides the three justices, 15 appellate judges will face retention votes on Nov. 6.

The Associated Press