The attorney representing three Florida Supreme Court justices branded as "baseless" any suggestions that his clients have acted improperly.
Speaking for Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince -- all of whom face retention election this November -- attorney Dan Stengle said the judges "have done nothing even beyond what a candidate for merit retention without opposition may lawfully and appropriately do."
The Southeastern Law Foundation this week questioned whether the trio may be violating ethics rules because they are raising money in an effort to retain their seats on the high court.
"No man is above the law, particularly those charged with enforcing the law," said Shannon Goessling, executive director of the Georgia-based group that pushed to strip President Bill Clinton of his law license.
But Stengle staunchly defended his clients.
"The justices are authorized by the judicial canons and election law -- through their Committees of Responsible Persons -- to raise money even if they do not have organized opposition.
"I suggest that the Southeastern Legal Foundation do a little more in terms of legal research before making such accusations as it has here. The accusations are baseless," Stengle told Sunshine State News.
Goessling says her group has drawn no conclusions, but is conducting "due diligence to make sure there is no wrongdoing."
"We have no beef with the justices," she said, adding, "All of the conduct relating to the justices, the canons and the state Bar are part of our inquiry."
"If rules have been flouted, we are prepared to take action on behalf of interested citizens," Goessling said, noting that her group has served open-records requests into the judicial "opposition" issue.
Stengle has signed a "certification of active opposition," declaring that the justices have organized opposition.
But on Wednesday, he appeared to modify that assertion.
"The three justices standing for merit retention have taken no actions that would have required them to certify 'organized opposition,'" he said.
"In other words, the justices have done nothing in this campaign that is not allowable for justices running for merit retention without organized opposition, so there isn't any real issue here at all."
Indeed, no group has stepped forward to wage an active campaign against Pariente, Lewis or Quince.
Restore Justice, a conservative watchdog group that monitors courts, has been critical of "activist judges," but its president, Jesse Phillips, said that's as far as his organization's efforts have gone.
"We certainly have concerns about some of the decisions that have come down from the court, but have never told anyone they should vote yes or no," Phillips said.
Restore Justice is classified as a "527" electioneering organization.
The Florida Bar has pledged to spend an unprecedented $300,000 on a voter "education campaign" about judicial retention elections.
Retention votes have been going on since 1978, and no Florida judge seeking a new six-year term has ever failed to win a majority vote.
Bar officials have repeatedly denied any involvement in electioneering.
"The Bar has no jurisdiction over judges and it would not be appropriate to comment on this matter," said Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker.
When Sunshine State News asked about the propriety of the Bar's outside general counsel, Barry Richard, co-hosting a fundraiser for the three justices this week in Tallahassee, Walker denied any conflict or collusion of interests.
"Mr. Richard is one of the Bar's outside legal counsels, and his letter of agreement with the Bar only addresses his provision of legal services as requested," Walker stated.
The fundraising event requested donations of $500 per judge.
Another simmering issue involves the use of court staff to process paperwork needed by the justices prior to the election deadline. Court proceedings were interrupted last month to give Pariente, Lewis and Quince time to sign what Stengle described as financial disclosure forms.
Stengle said the paperwork did not constitute "electioneering," and therefore violated no rules.
But Gov. Rick Scott, at the urging of state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, has referred the matter to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for review and possible investigation.
Reach Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.