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Politics

Conflict of Interest? Unions Endorse Justices While Florida Supreme Court Decides Their Case

October 1, 2012 - 6:00pm

While prominent lawyers and interest groups around Florida are vociferously condemning organized opposition to the November retention of three of the Sunshine States Supreme Court justices, they are curiously silent on one partys entrance into the public debate: the public-sector unions.

The Florida State Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and Florida Professional Firefighters (FPF) held a press conference Monday denouncing the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) for its week-old press release announcing the state GOPs opposition to the merit-retention campaign of Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince.

The justices are accused of being left-wing judicial activists by the RPOF and by Restore Justice 2012, the not-for-profit that is spearheading efforts to remove them from the ballot in November.The two organizations have been criticized by prominent lawyers from the state of injecting politics and partisanship into the merit-retention race.

Critics include former Republican state Sen. Alex Villalobos, former Democratic state representative and American Bar Association president Sandy D'Alemberte, six former Supreme Court justices, several newspaper editorial boards and the pro-retention organizations Democracy at Stake and Defend Justice from Politics.

But for all their willingness to publicly criticize opponents of the justices for politicizing the retention race, none of these persons or organizations has offered a word of public criticism of the police or fire unions. Opponents of the justices are crying foul, not only because of a perceived double standard but because the Supreme Court is presently deliberating on a high-profile lawsuit brought by these unions against the Republican state Legislatures 2011 pension reforms.

Theres a definite conflict of interest here, says Jesse Phillips, president of Restore Justice, in an interview with Sunshine State News. Up until this point in the campaign, the only real support that the justices had was from the legal community; and this is an unprecedented step for a labor union to take, particularly when they stand to benefit from a pending decision.

Sunshine State News also spoke to Nelson Cuba, president of the Jacksonville FOP and a member of the Duval County Republican Executive Committee. He supported the unions support for the justices retention campaign, and insisted it is not politically motivated.

Were not only endorsing these justices, he says. Were endorsing the [merit-retention] system thats in place, which started back in 1976. We just feel that this is the best system available out there, and special interest groups should stay out of it. We had to jump into it because others jumped into it first, and we wanted to make sure our voices were heard.

If [opposition to the justices] is successful, it could put active law enforcement officers in harms way, said Jeff McAdams of the Gainesville Police Department to the Miami Herald. Any time the courts, our judicial system, is challenged in such a fashion to bring discredit upon it, the public loses trust in government.

Asked to elaborate on this concern, Cuba told Sunshine State News that its already hard enough to deal with criminals. If they believe, Ive got nothing to lose, because the judiciary is no longer independent, then that causes concern. Now, that concern may not [materialize], but the point is it can happen. And if it happens just one time, thats one time too many when it comes to an officers safety.

Cuba insists his organizations primary concern is the integrity of the justice system.

We believe that the judiciary should be able to be impartial. They should not be beholden to any special interest. They should not be looking over their shoulder if they rule a certain way, he says. Any one of those justices should not be concerned that if they rule a certain way that any one group will come after them for that.

Sunshine State News repeatedly reached out to both Democracy at Stake and Defend Justice from Politics to comment on the unions recent endorsement, but none was forthcoming. Theyre apparently following the lead of the justices themselves, whose joint retention campaign representative said the justices -- who are sitting down with editorial boards across the state have specifically declined to interview with the News, Floridas only center-right news organization.

Politicizing the court only seems to be a problem when youre on our side, trying to educate people about the justices legal rulings, says Phillips of Restore Justice. But if you want to climb into bed with the justices right before they make a decision on a major budgetary case, of which youre the prime beneficiary, I guess thats OK for you to do.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at 054-235-9116.

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