Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said Monday that GOP Gov. Rick Scott had nothing to do with the party's drive to oust three justices from the state Supreme Court.
On Friday, the RPOF's executive board called for voters to fight against keeping Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince on the high court, calling them "liberals" and accusing them of "judicial activism."
If voters remove the justices during the November election, Scott will appoint their replacements.
A spokeswoman for Scott said Monday the governor had been unaware of his party's vote last week, and Curry agreed, saying Scott was "not a part of the decision at all."
Curry said local party activists pushed for the move, "given the history of judicial activism" by the three justices.
"This was a grassroots effort from the ground up," Curry said. "They came to me."
On Monday, bipartisan backers of the jurists warned that the move would repoliticize Florida's justice system, with dire consequences for the state. Those backers included former American Bar Association president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, former Republican state Sen. Alex Villalobos and former Chief Justice Major Harding, who retired from the court in 2002.
Villalobos, who heads a group called "Democracy at Stake" to support the trio of jurists, had warned earlier this month of a "sneak attack" on them. Harding on Monday also took issue with the charge of judicial activism.
"I have been told that a judicial activist is one who rules against me,'' Harding said. "There are many different definitions, and it is in the mind of the beholder."
The high court has been targeted before by Republican lawmakers frustrated by its rulings. Those rulings have ranged from overturning former Gov. Jeb Bush's school voucher program to blocking a redistricting plan and scuttling constitutional amendments proposed by the GOP-led Legislature.
Outgoing House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has been particularly critical of the Supreme Court. He and other lawmakers put a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that, in part, would require Senate confirmation of new justices.
D'Alemberte led the struggle in the 1970s to change the way the state chooses judges at various levels from partisan elections to the current process. The governor selects Supreme Court justices from a list of nominees and then justices come up for merit-retention votes every six years.
"We got politics out of the judiciary," said D'Alemberte. "And before we did that, we had some terrible scandals in Florida. But now, since we fixed those problems by trying to get politics out, what's happening now is the executive committee of the Republican Party is attempting to break something that's been fixed."
Curry adamantly disagreed, saying the party's opposition to retaining the justices is driven by policy concerns. The executive committee's vote was unanimous, he said.
"While the collective evidence of judicial activism amassed by these three individuals is extensive, there is one egregious example that all Florida voters should bear in mind when they go to the polls on Election Day," said a statement issued by Friday RPOF spokeswoman Kristen McDonald. "These three justices voted to set aside the death penalty for a man convicted of tying a woman to a tree with jumper cables and setting her on fire."
That statement referred to the case of Joe Elton Nixon, who in 1984 murdered Jeanne Bickner in Tallahassee. In 2003, the high court ordered a new trial for Nixon based on an unauthorized statement of guilt from his then-attorney, but the decision was subsequently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Nixon, who is still on death row, was never released.
In 2006, after the controversial ruling, Lewis, Pariente and Quince stood for merit retention and each received more than 67 percent of the vote.
Asked why the party did not move against the justices then, Curry said he had not been on the executive committee.
A Democrat, D'Alemberte was asked Monday if the Florida Democratic Party should enter the fray. Like Lewis and Pariente, Harding was appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles; Quince was a joint appointment by Chiles and Bush.
"I would be infuriated if the Democratic Party entered this," replied D'Alemberte. "They have no business in this."
"The law wouldn't allow that to happen," Villalobos added, "because the law says that a party can't support a nonpartisan judicial race, which is what they're doing here. The irony doesn't say they cannot oppose it, which is what they're doing here. But the law says they cannot engage in supporting justices."
Also Monday, Lewis told the Hillsborough County Bar Association that the merit retention battle is "the most stressful time I've ever experienced in my life.''
The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times reported that Lewis said, "I'm embarrassed to have to plead for our court system. If we fail, we fail the people of Florida. There is an entire branch of government to protect and defend. We cannot sacrifice fairness and impartiality and the court system to political whims."
Curry said the RPOF hadn't yet decided how much money to put into the merit retention battle.