Nowhere was that strategy more apparent — and successful — than in Iowa, where conservative activists in 2010 ousted three state Supreme Court justices who had upheld the legality of same-sex unions. Five groups from out of state spent nearly $1 million on that campaign. Four of them, including the National Organization for Marriage and the Citizens United Political Victory Fund, are based in the District or Arlington.
“Judges around the country took notice; they talk about it,” Seth Andersen, executive director of the Iowa-based American Judicature Society, said of that effort. He said judges were facing the reality that one decision could attract the wrath of well-funded special interests. “It’s like hearing footsteps,” he said. “The point is, what’s the ripple effect?”
‘Different world now’
In Florida, the driving force behind the ad hoc campaign in 2010 to unseat two Supreme Court justices was tea party activist Jesse Phillips.
Phillips lives in a modest two-story home in Winter Park, northeast of Orlando. The father of three sons is a computer programmer. He also is the face of Restore Justice 2012, a political group formed to undertake a “voter education campaign” aimed at unseating the three Florida Supreme Court justices facing retention votes in November.
“One of the great obstacles is the judicial branch,” Phillips said in an interview. “We can make all the strides we can make in the executive and legislative branch, and we can have all that thrown out if we don’t have a court that’s responsible to the will of the people.”
He has constructed a Web site that calls Florida’s Supreme Court “one of the most activist courts in the nation” and details decisions that he says show how the justices he opposes are “consistently on the wrong side of issues.”
Phillips singled out the health-care ballot measure and other key decisions involving school vouchers and corporate liability. Also, he said, he would prefer to see Republican Gov. Rick Scott have a chance to leave his mark on the court.
He declined to say how much his group has received in donations or from whom. He has hired two part-time staff members, he said, and hopes to have volunteer organizers in all 67 Florida counties by Sunday.
“To be successful, we’re going to have to run what would amount to a U.S. Senate campaign,” he said, saying he would need to raise “easily over $1 million.”
Back on the 18th floor of the downtown high-rise, the campaigning justices insisted that their main concern isn’t a 28-year-old computer programmer with tea party beliefs and an appealing Web site.
Rather, they worry about the powerful outside groups and political kingmakers who could decide to fund Phillips’s venture, the ones with the ability to descend in the final weeks of a campaign and spend millions. They worry about what Quince called “an uneven playing field,” in which the justices face strict rules on how they can campaign, what they can say and how much money they can raise, while outside political groups have few such restrictions. More than anything, they worry that the judicial branch is fast becoming just another prize on the political landscape.
Rather than ignore the new political reality, the justices have decided to fight it head on. Hours earlier, they had granted their first television interview to a local station. Last week, they held a fundraiser in Miami. On this day, Orlando. Next week, Tampa.
“It’s a completely different world now,” said Dan Stengle, a Tallahassee lawyer who is helping to run the justices’ campaigns. “We are going on the assumption — I think it would be foolish not to — that the attack will come. . . . We want to be ready for that hurricane.”