Florida trial lawyers come to justice's side

Published On: Oct 31 2012 11:04:05 AM EDT
Florida Supreme Court
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Some of the state's largest personal-injury law firms have helped ante up more than $2.5 million to retain three Florida Supreme Court justices against the wishes of conservative groups and the Republican Party of Florida.

Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince have been targeted by the RPOF and conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, for a string of rulings dating back to 2000 that have thwarted Republican-led efforts.

Normally routine and little publicized, the races have drawn national attention as critics increasingly go to the ballot box to influence the bench.

In response, a group called Defend Justice from Politics was formed to back the justices, who must place their names on the ballot every six years under a retention system approved by voters in the 1970s following a series of scandals in the high court and other appellate benches.

Among the campaign's top contributors are a handful of prominent firms that handle medical malpractice, product liability and a host of other personal injury cases, according to records filed with federal election officials and the Florida Department of State.

Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley and Terrell Hogan, a Jacksonville firm, both contributed $250,000 toward the effort from July 1 to Oct. 17, records show. Two other Jacksonville firms, Edwards & Ragatz and Pajcic & Pajcic, contributed $100,000 each.

"You never win all the time but you would like to believe - and we have a basis to believe -that the current Supreme Court will base its decision on the law," said Wayne Hogan of Terrell Hogan.

Other firms have also chipped in. They include Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor in Pensacola ($200,000); Grossman Roth in Miami ($200,000); and Podhurst Orseck in Miami ($100,000.)

Other contributors included the left-leaning America Votes, a Washington, D.C. based advocacy group, which gave $120,000, and the Florida Police Benevolent Association ($10,000.)

About $1.5 million of the contributions has been funneled to television advertising in support of retaining the justices.

The three justices have been on the prevailing side of decisions that have rankled Republicans and conservatives for more than a decade. In 2000, they joined the majority to demand that ballots be recounted in Florida's presidential election debacle.

In 2010, the trio also thwarted a state Republican-led constitutional amendment to oppose President Barack Obama's health care reform law. A revised version of the amendment is on the 2012 ballot.

Last month, the RPOF executive committee voted to officially oppose the justices' retention efforts.

"The grassroots opposition to these judges stems from a long list of cases in which these justices have injected their own political views into their rulings," RPOF chairman Lenny Curry said in an op/ed piece.

Over the past several weeks, the justices have been crisscrossing the state to talk to editorial boards and groups about the merit retention system and their desire to keep their jobs. The three justices had an average 90 percent approval rating according to a Florida Bar survey of lawyers who tried cases or had dealings before the high court.

"We do not want and we should not want to go back to a system where judges are beholden to anyone -- no political party, no group, no individual,? Quince told a group during a forum at Florida State University College of Law in early October.

The anti-retention effort began in 2010 when Justices Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry were targeted by a relatively unorganized group of critics. Anticipating a similar effort, the justices this year have raised more than $1 million to retain their seats. That money is in addition to the amounts raised by Defend Justice from Politics.

This time around, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group linked to the billionaire conservative-activist Koch brothers, has joined the fight to dump the justices.