TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Three Supreme Court justices targeted by social conservatives and the Republican Party of Florida easily survived merit retention votes Tuesday, beating back a campaign the trio's supporters said would be a threat to the justice system.
Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince were all carrying two-thirds of the vote into the evening, well more than the simple majority they needed to hold onto their seats. The justices did not face opponents but needed the approval of voters to remain on the court.
No Supreme Court justice has ever lost a merit retention race.
Pariente said in an interview that the justices' victory rebuffed an effort by outside special interests to hijack the bench.
"So the message is: 'If you are outside the state and you are trying to politicize our judicial branch, stay out. This is an assault on our democracy, our separation of powers, and we're not going to tolerate attempts to implement partisan politics for special interests,'" she said.
No one answered the phone at Restore Justice 2012, the campaign that tried to unseat the justices, but a statement on the organization's website portrayed the effort as successful.
"Restore Justice is happy to have led the most vigorous grassroots merit retention campaign in Florida's history. ... We consider our campaign a tremendous success and would like to thank the countless volunteers who made it possible," said Jesse Phillips, the president of the group.
The campaign over the future of the court had looked like it might be one of the more heated down-ballot races of the year. After a decision by the court to strike a health-care referendum from the ballot in 2010, enraged conservatives launched a brief effort that year to derail Justice Jorge Labarga, who claimed just 59 percent of the vote, one of the smallest totals in years.
Lewis, Pariente and Quince form the backbone of a 5-2, center-left majority that has sometimes thwarted the efforts of GOP legislators and governors to move Florida to the right. In addition to striking down several legislative attempts to amend the state's constitution in 2010, the court threw out the first draft of this year's redistricting plan for the state Senate.
In the end, the effort was less vigorous than expected – an expected bombardment of TV advertising against the judges never emerged.
The politically-charged race was, however, briefly ramped up in late September, when the Republican Party of Florida's executive board voted to oppose the justices, citing a years-old opinion in the case of Joe Nixon, who was convicted in the 1984 murder of Jeanne Bickner in Leon County.
Supporters cried foul, and said Tuesday's results were a rebuke to the RPOF.
"We can only hope that our elected leaders get the message and bring the unprecedented assault on our fair and impartial courts to an end," said Dick Batchelor, a former Democratic legislator and spokesman for Defend Justice from Politics, a group supporting Lewis, Pariente and Quince.
Copyright 2012 by The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.