Immediately after the Republicans took complete control of state Government in January 1999, Republicans began talking often and openly about changing Florida’s court system and the way judges are selected. With the Republicans looking to impose a strict ideological framework on state government, the courts stood in the way of the radical rewrite of governance doctrinaire conservatives long sought.
For many years the judiciary served as the only truly independent branch of Government remaining. In an era when lobbyists and special interests have free run of the Florida Legislature and executive branch, the Supreme Court has in most cases prior to 2008 continued to do its job independently and without partisan or political considerations. The Florida Supreme Court until that time routinely put a roadblock against the most extreme and illegal actions by the Republican led, and conservative dominated Legislature/Executive Branch.
Jeb Bush was frustrated with the courts unwillingness to give him a rubber stamp and appointed several lower court justices who instead of interpreting the constitution sought to impose an ido0logical litmus test on decisions. The lack of Supreme Court retirements in addition to the complicated, but effective process for selecting judges in Florida hamstrung Bush. But Bush and current Governor Rick Scott have not had the impact in pushing Florida’s Judiciary to right as much as Charlie Crist did. As Governor, Crist appointed the two most conservative justices on the court, Justice Charles Canady (a former congressman who compiled a heavy right voting record in the US House) and Justice Ricky Polston. Crist’s appointments (four in all) radically shifted the court’s direction from consumer and citizens protection to ideological and political.
The Republicans have long claimed that they are for “cutting taxes and spending, and ensuring more freedom”. Yet as we have repeatedly seen in the Legislature, job creation and corporate relocations have lagged behind other similar sized states while the average Floridian continues to be stuck with a higher tax bill each and every year. But with a new Crist appointed conservative leaning Supreme Court in place, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Legislature have repeatedly tried to use the court system including the Crist/GOP packed Supreme Court to be defacto legislators spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money in the process. These frivolous lawsuits by the Republicans continue to waste taxpayer dollars. Every time an attorney hired by the state walks into a courtroom, that attorney is taking money away from a child in a school, social service programs, road construction, etc. Instead of constantly calling for more “tort reform” perhaps the Florida Legislature should set the example and pledge to no longer sue other governmental entities or appeal the rulings of the court system.
Even after the appointments made by Crist pushed the court as far right as it had been since the 1960s, the Republicans attempted to politicize the Supreme Court in this past election cycle when the party actively opposed the merit retention of the three remaining Chiles appointees on the Supreme Court.
From the RPOF on September 21, 2012:
“This week, the RPOF executive board voted unanimously to oppose the retention of Supreme Court Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince. 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. 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. The fact that the United States Supreme Court voted, unanimously, to throw out their legal opinion, raises serious questions as to their competence to understand the law and serve on the bench, and demonstrates that all three justices are too extreme not just for Florida, but for America, too.”
The GOP cleverly picked one ruling to make their point about three excellent justices. The conservatives went further with a website dedicated to attacking the three justices. R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince were all appointed between 1996 and 1998 by the late Governor Lawton Chiles. Each was highly recommended by the Florida Bar and has served with distinction on the court, preventing the extremist legislature who have failed to understand or respect Florida’s 1968 Constitution (nor take the time in many cases to understand the debates and process involved in drafting the document). With Florida citizens under attack from a group of elected officials who haven’t bothered to immerse themselves in the finer points of governing or understanding the state as a whole, the Supreme Court has been our only defense. Thankfully, Florida’s voters were not swayed by the RPOF effort and the justices were all retained.
As we demonstrate above the tenure of Governor Charlie Crist led to a more partisan and politicized judiciary. Crist appointees and then the willingness of the RPOF to interfere in merit retention cases has pushed Florida’s top court further and further away from its position as a gatekeeper and safety net for Florida’s citizens. The GOP as a party has used judges and non-corporate attorney’s as constant bogeymen in the effort to score political points. It was about time this stopped.