The school billed it as "a forum to educate voters about merit retention and the process by which judges in Florida are selected," but Friday's forum at FSU College of Law was anything but an unbiased look at the system: It was a one-sided campaign stop by three justices pitching for votes.
The hour-long forum, titled Who Will Be the Judge? was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Florida State University Alpha Phi Omega Community Service Fraternity, and the Florida State University Women in Pre-Law Society.
The panel consisted exclusively of the three Florida Supreme Court justices up for merit retention on the November ballot: Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince. And the discussion was moderated by Kelly Overstreet Johnson, a former president of the Florida Bar who at present is working on Quinces retention committee.
The justices joint retention campaign was in full swing at the event, distributing literature and asking each of the 50-or-so audience attendees to register their names and email addresses at the door. Brief concluding remarks were delivered by the justices campaign manager, Dan Newman, who urged all those in attendance to find [the justices campaign] Facebook pages, Like them, and share them with your friends and colleagues, because we really do face a challenge in getting the word out to all Floridians, and this is a really important way we can do that.
Each of the justices gave opening remarks which lasted between seven and nine minutes. Pariente touted her commitment to reforming the court system to give priority to cases involving children and families. Lewis recounted his days as a young lawyer on the campaign trail with state Supreme Court candidates, back in the days, before the 1970s, when the merit-retention system had not been in place and justices were elected by popular vote. Quince shared her testimony growing up under racial segregation; she had studied zoology as an undergraduate and aspired to be a medical doctor, but decided to enter law school after being impressed by the importance of it in securing civil liberties.
Each of the three justices warned of what they said would be dire consequences for the states legal system should voters not elect to retain them on the November ballot.
Judges are [supposed to remain on the bench] through good behavior, and I would submit to you that the judges and justices on this ballot have served in good behavior, Quince pleaded. It does not mean youre always going to agree [with us]; it cannot mean that. If that were the case we would be changing judges every other day.
The three justices retentions are being opposed by the Republican Party of Florida, the nonprofit organizations Americans for Prosperity and Restore Justice 2012, whose supporters say the justices are left-wing activists with a history of imposing their personal beliefs on the cases before them, and not judging according to the original public meaning of state laws.
As a lawyer, I am so proud to have you all on our [Supreme] Court, beamed moderator Johnson when Quince finished delivering her remarks. Johnson proceeded to ask each of the justices a couple of questions, chosen from among several submitted in writing by attendees at the start of the event.
The justices were not asked any questions about their past controversial rulings or their judicial philosophy. Instead they were asked why voters should elect to retain them, why voters were generally ignorant of the mechanics of the retention process, and about the role of money in influencing recent judicial races.
Lewis complained that the justices did not have the resources to compete with wealthy donors opposing them, this despite the fact that the justices joint campaign has raised about $1.15 million, while so far, all of their opponents together have raised less than one-tenth of that amount.
None of the justices commented on their past rulings or on their legal philosophy.
In September, after repeated reach-outs to the justices for interviews, Sunshine State News was contacted by a representative of their campaign, who said the justices (who are traveling around the state to sit down with newspaper editorial boards) are specifically refusing to interview with the News, which is Floridas only center-right news organization.
How is this type of a forum -- without any sort of opposition or other viewpoint represented -- anything other than just a campaign event? asked Alex Boler, a third-year student at FSU Law and president of that schools chapter of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, the nations premier fellowship of conservative and libertarian law students, in an interview with Sunshine State News after the event.
I don't think that a candidate who is on the ballot for retention can be fully objective about the system. It just seems like an event organized to help them stay in office; which I don't mind, but it should not be promoted as a forum about the system. If the governor was running for re-election, and he came to talk about why a governor should get to keep his job, we would recognize that as a campaign event.
Boler emphasized he was speaking for himself personally, and not for the Federalist Society or any of its affiliated chapters.
The student body, and the community, would be better served if they could hear a diversity of opinion on the topic, rather than just the views of the three people directly interested in the outcome, he said.
Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews or at (954) 235-9116.