TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Some of Florida's top Republicans are refusing to back their own party when it comes to the fate of three state Supreme Court justices on this year's ballot.
The Republican Party of Florida is officially urging its members to vote down the justices, citing past decisions, including a notorious north Florida death penalty case. If the justices are ousted, GOP Gov. Rick Scott would get to appoint new people to the bench.
Some Republican elected officials, however, are taking a fine line with the issue, saying that party leaders had the right to voice their opposition but then refusing to say if they share that viewpoint.
"I don't know of any elected official that was out suggesting this is an idea we should be taking to the Republican Party of Florida," said Jeff Atwater, the state's chief financial officer and a Republican. "I don't know if it's the best place for the party to be."
Florida since the '70s has had in place a system where the governor appoints Supreme Court justices but then they are subject to an up-or-down vote every six years.
Attorney General Pam Bondi is also refusing to say if she agrees with the decision that was made late last month by the Republican Party executive board.
Bondi noted that she didn't criticize the U.S. Supreme Court justices who ruled against Florida in its challenge to the federal health care overhaul. She pointed out she has pending cases before the state court.
"I'm the chief legal officer of the state of Florida and I'm not going to get involved in this," Bondi said on Tuesday.
A Republican Party spokesman downplayed the decision by top GOP members to avoid taking a stance.
"It's meaningless," said Brian Burgess. "They don't have a position, either for or against these justices. Neutral means neutral."
There are seven members on the state Supreme Court. Justice Fred Lewis and Justice Barbara Pariente were appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. Justice Peggy Quince was jointly appointed by Chiles and Republican Jeb Bush when he was governor-elect.
The justices have drawn the ire of conservatives for rulings stretching back to the chaotic recount of the 2000 presidential election to a decision two years ago to strike from the ballot a proposed amendment aimed at blocking health care reform that justices called misleading. A similar amendment is on this year's ballot.
Scott himself has also criticized some of the court's decisions. He has insisted he played no role in the decision by the party to oppose the three justices, but he has strong connections to its leaders.
A group supporting the three justices started running ads Tuesday in Orlando, Tampa, Miami and West Palm Beach television markets. The ad paid by Defend Justice from Politics calls the opposition a "political power grab."
Justice Barbara Pariente this week echoed the wording in the ad, saying that the decision to oppose her and the two other justices "is about a group, a political party that wants to take control over the third branch of government."
Some Republican lawyers tried unsuccessfully last week to get the party to change its position. Roberto Martinez and Marcos Jimenez, both former U.S. attorneys, along with Allison DeFoor, a former Bush aide and Monroe County sheriff, wrote a letter to party leaders saying that the retention of justices "should not be turned into partisan political affairs."
"Partisan political activity serves to turn the judiciary into a political branch of government, something that our founding fathers did not want nor ever intended," states the letter.
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