While deep-pocketed super PACs and ultra-wealthy donors have attracted plenty of attention in the presidential contest this year, they are also making waves further down the political food chain. The mere possibility that a rich benefactor or interest group with endless amounts of money could swoop in, write massive checks and remake an entire court for ideological reasons has prompted judges here in Florida and elsewhere to prepare for battles they never expected to fight.
The three justices sipping water and shaking hands in the ballroom decided months ago that they needed to campaign early and hard. They saw two of their colleagues targeted in 2010 after the court refused to allow a ballot measure opposing a key provision in President Obama’s health-care plan. They knew the organizers of that effort, angry about what they call “judicial activism,” had promised to step up their campaign and had formed a political organization that by law can raise unlimited money.
The judges were less than excited about having to ask people for money.
“It is almost embarrassing to be doing it,” Justice Fred Lewis said.
“It’s an awkward thing,” Justice Barbara Pariente agreed.
“We should not have to go around and have our friends and committees collecting money,” Justice Peggy Quince added. “We don’t want to get caught up in those kinds of things.”
Those challenging the judges say their actions offer a way to inform the public and hold the judiciary accountable. The judges say they welcome accountability but want to protect the independence of the bench.
Like judges elsewhere, those in Florida remain rattled by what happened two years ago in Iowa, where three state Supreme Court justices who had upheld a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage lost their jobs after a vitriolic million-dollar campaign to unseat them — money coming almost entirely from outside the state. In the preceding decade, not a single dollar had reportedly been spent on Iowa’s high court elections.
Similar but lower-profile efforts have taken place in Alaska, Colorado and Illinois.
And so, with the help of friends in the legal community who have formed fundraising committees — including a former attorney general, a former justice and former leaders of the state bar — the three Florida justices have honed their stump speeches.