A loosely organized Internet campaign against the court two years ago has been fortified by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaire activists Charles and David Koch. And then came the surprise announcement that the Republican Party of Florida had decided to oppose all three justices, an unprecedented move in the nonpartisan vote.
Party leaders said that “collective evidence of judicial activism” showed the jurists to be liberals who are out of touch with the public.
Opponents point to the court’s death penalty decisions and a ruling that kept an “Obamacare” referendum off the 2010 ballot. But the justices’ supporters say an effort is underway to pack the court with new appointees and deliver Republicans the only branch of state government they don’t control.
Justices Barbara J. Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy A. Quince have faced voters twice before and easily retained their jobs. But this year they have hired consultants with the $1.3 million raised on their behalf, filmed commercials and hit the road for appearances. Because they can’t sell themselves, they try to sell the nonpartisan selection system that got them here — a system they say is under attack.
“The people of Florida deserve a judicial branch that is not beholden to big guys or little guys, to big money or no money, to agendas of any kind,” Lewis told law students at the University of Florida last week, coming the closest of the three to delivering the judicial equivalent of a savvy political sound bite.
“We’re not politicians,” Pariente said.
The fight in Florida is different from judicial campaigns that have drawn notice in other states, where trial lawyers on one side and big business on the other have turned partisan elections into multimillion-dollar affairs.
And unlike the three Iowa justices who were voted out in 2010 after ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, the Florida justices have made no landmark decisions.
In fact, said Alex Villalobos, chairman of Democracy at Stake, a group defending the justices, “nobody has a clue what the Supreme Court does.” But, he said, the court is well-known to the state’s powerful interests.
“Some very smart people have figured out that it can be a lot cheaper to change policy in a state like Florida by taking out the justices rather than by taking on the governor or changing the numbers in the legislature,” he said.
It is clear that this campaign against justices is different from one two years ago, when the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity got involved. While not taking a position on whether the justices should be voted out, the group spent $100,000 on a Web site and one night of television commercials criticizing the court’s decision to keep a referendum on President Obama’s health-care legislation off the ballot because the wording was misleading.