Gov. Rick Scott is considering calling for an investigation into whether or not three Supreme Court justices are guilty of a misdemeanor in their scramble to get papers filed last week in their merit retention races.
Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, had sent a letter to Scott on Thursday asking for the probe into whether or not three Supreme Court justices violated state law by using court employees to "prepare the campaign documents" relating to their merit retention election on the November ballot. The governor is evaluating whether to order the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate, according to the governor’s staff.
Plakon cited media reports about the court's rare, hour-long break in redistricting arguments on Friday when the lawyer heading up the merit retention campaigns of Justice Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quincy and R. Fred Lewis, alerted them that they had failed to file the required financial disclosure form and qualifying papers by the noon deadline.
"If correct, the news reports indicate that Florida law may have been violated by the Justices,'' Plakon wrote, citing state statute that prevents a candidate for public office from using the services of state staff during working hours.
Supreme Court justices and district court of appeal judges are not elected, but are appointed by the governor in Florida. To keep them accountable to the public, the Florida Constitution requires them to appear on the ballot for a “yes or no” merit retention vote every six years.
Another state law prohibits candidates for public office from using the services of any government staff “in the furtherance of his or her candidacy” during working hours. Violators are guilty of a first degree misdemeanor.
The controversy is another signal that the normally mundane issue of judicial retention could become a blistering political battle as a Tea Party-backed conservative group called Restore Justice 2012 mounts a campaign to oust the three sitting justices, who were appointed by former Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat.
Dan Stengle, the lawyer working with the justices on their merit retention campaigns, said a a "comedy of errors" provoked when the treasurer for the justices' failed to notify them they hadn't filed the proper documents. That led to the need to take a recess in the court hearing so that the justices could get their paperwork completed by the noon filing deadline. He denied that they violated the law.
“It is a ministerial duty,’’ Stengle said. “It is standard practice throughout the state court system for staff to notarize all document.’’
He said the same procedure is used by appellate court judges throughout the state and Supreme Court justices in the past. The Division of Elections also allows staff to notarize documents for candidates during working hours and, in 2010, documents filed at the Division of Elections shows Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston also relied on court staff to notarize their loyalty oath and financial disclosure documents.
Plakon, a Longwood Republican, said that may be true but he doesn't have enough information to know if that was also a violation. "Using court staff isn't prohibited,'' he said. "What is prohibited is using them during normal business hours."
Plakon has been a harsh critic of the Supreme Court and its decision to remove constitutional amendments proposed by lawmakers from the 2010 election ballot. He is also friends with Jesse Phillips, the head of a tea party-based group called Restore Justice 2012 that was organized to try to defeat the three justices, who must ask voters in a yes or no vote on the November ballot to retain them.
Stengle has been representing the political committees formed by the justices to raise money in defense against the attempts to oust them in the merit retention race.
Plakon calls Stengle's claims a "half-truth," noting that the loyalty oath was "clear furtherance of his or her candidacy."