Judge Terry Lewis Dismisses Lawsuit Seeking Justices' Removal from Ballot
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SLF, a conservative public-interest law firm, is representing two citizen plaintiffs who allege that the justices employed the services of their law clerks to further their campaigns and falsified campaign documents, both of which would be violations of state law.
Judge Lewis dismissed the suit on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing -- i.e., the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that they have suffered, or would suffer, any special injury not shared by citizens in general, should the justices’ names be permitted to remain on the November ballot.
Florida Supreme Court justices serve six-year terms, at the conclusion of which they face an up or down “merit retention” vote in a general election. Justices must retire on, or shortly after, their 70th birthday. No Florida justice has ever failed a retention bid.
Attorneys for the justices and for the Florida Department of State (DOS) argued that the case should be dismissed on any of four grounds:
- The plaintiffs failed to satisfy the standing requirements of Florida law, according to which they needed to allege an injury not shared by taxpayers or citizens generally.
- The plaintiffs were litigating in the wrong venue. Florida law vests subject matter jurisdiction over these cases in the Judicial Qualifications Commission and the Florida Elections Commission, not the circuit courts.
- Even if every one of the factual claims made by the plaintiffs was conceded, nothing the justices supposedly did actually amounted to a violation of state law.
- Even if the justices did violate state law, the proper legal remedy is not removal from the November ballot.
The FDLE did not comment on the legality of these actions, but simply noted that judges employing their clerks in this manner "is common practice throughout the state and is done solely as a matter of convenience,” and found "no evidence indicating an abuse of either position or public resources.”
Lewis found for the justices on the standing argument, without considering the others or the merits of the plaintiffs’ allegations.
Plaintiffs alleged that on April 20 the justices interrupted oral arguments for one hour, while they rushed to get their retention paperwork in order before the approaching deadline, which was noon that day. An investigation by the Florida Department of Law of Enforcement (FDLE) found that the arguments were indeed interrupted, and the justices did have their law clerks notarize and file their campaign paperwork for them.
The SLF insists the justices’ actions both contradicted the letter of state law and cost taxpayers “thousands of dollars in additional legal fees for private outside counsel who were forced to wait while the justices worked on their campaign documents.”
Attorney Shannon L. Goessling, executive director for the SLF, told Sunshine State News she "absolutely" would appeal the case to the 1st District Court. She offered a spirited defense of her clients’ allegations, at one point in the proceedings referring to the justices’ actions as “unconscionable” and even taking to interrogating Judge Lewis on a proposed hypothetical she employed to make a point.
Gov. Rick Scott has been accused by some observers of jumping to conclusions in the case, unfairly assuming guilt on the part of the justices. When in June he was asked whether he believed they had violated the law, he replied, “They should comply with the law. It’s the Supreme Court. You’d think they would comply with the law.”
Later, after FDLE completed its investigation, Scott’s office released a statement that only thinly veiled his discontent: “According to FDLE findings, it appears using state employees to complete and file campaign forms and other documents is ‘common practice.’ Now this case is before the courts where a determination will be made as to whether this ‘common practice’ is legal. Whatever the ruling, we will accept it and act accordingly."
Scott’s office did not return requests for comment on Lewis’ ruling by late Wednesday.
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.