Judge tosses challenge to justices' place on ballot


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Leon County judge Wednesday tossed out a suit seeking to block three sitting Supreme Court justices from the November election ballot, the latest chapter in an ongoing saga about how the trio filed their qualifying papers.

But the conservative legal group that filed the suit vowed to appeal the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary, continuing the politically-charged battle against justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, who form the backbone of the Florida court's left-of-center majority.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation, with two voters named as plaintiffs, argued that the judges should not be allowed on the ballot for merit-retention votes because they broke state law in qualifying to run. Those allegations stem, in part, from the judges using court employees to notarize elections documents as part of a scramble to get the documents filed on time.

The bench ruling, by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, focused primarily on whether the voters had standing to challenge the justices' papers. But even as he dismissed the case, Lewis acknowledged that the politically combustible lawsuit was unlikely to end there.

"We'll let the district court of appeal decide whether I'm right or not," he said.

Shannon Goessling, executive director of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, said her group would continue with the case, saying Lewis' decision would allow justices to ignore the law in preparing elections filings.

"At this point, it appears there will be no consequences for them unless we can be victorious in the court of appeal or the [Florida] Supreme Court," Goessling said.

She added that some First Amendment claims in the lawsuit could be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former dean of the Florida State University law school and former president of the American Bar Association who supports the justices, suggested he wasn't overly concerned with the threat to take things to the highest court in the land.

"Good luck to them," he said. "It may be that they get the United States Supreme Court ... to develop some authority that's heretofore never been seen in American jurisprudence, but I doubt it."

The court hearing featured clashes both on the standing issue and the merits of the case.

State Attorney Willie Meggs, a Democrat, decided not to prosecute the justices after an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. John DeVault, representing the justices, told Lewis that should end the matter.

"Indeed, if there was a question about that, it was answered by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in its investigation," he said.

But Goessling said the FDLE investigation did suggest that the law might have been broken, even if Meggs decided not to prosecute.

"The question here is: How many laws do you have to violate in the process of preparing, notarizing and filing your campaign documents before those campaign documents become void and cannot be utilized for purposes of qualifying?" she said.