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Justices fire back in controversy over their campaign paperwork

Florida's three Supreme Court justices, who are under fire for using court staff to assist them in their last-minute completion of their paperwork needed to meet the deadline for their merit retention campaigns, shot back on Thursday with a letter from a well-regarded constitutional law expert.

Lawyer Barry Richard, who has presided before the court on numerous cases and represented George W. Bush in the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, sided with the justices that they did nothing wrong.

"It has been common practice in Florida for many years for deputies and employees in the officers of supervisors of elections and court clerks to notarize documents filed in such offices when requested by members of the public,'' Richard wrote in in a legal opinion sought by the judges' campaign counsel. "...Such notarization is offered as a public service" and "does not indicate that the notary endorses the candidacy of the person filing the documents'' Download Opinion_letter_to_DStengle[1]

Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince took a rare hour-long break in a redistricting hearing two weeks ago because state elections officials informed them they hadn't completed the proper paperwork to conduct their merit retention elections. Supreme Court justices and appelate court justices in Florida must appear on the ballot every six years and ask voters if they remain qualified to stay in office.

The justices scrambled to complete their required oath of office and financial disclosure forms by the noon deadline and then used court staff to notarize them.

The judges are facing opposition from a Tea Party-backed group, based in Orlando. When the group said they believed the justices had violated a law that prohibits state workers from assisting a campaign during state time, Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, wrote to the governor last week asking for an investigation.

Barry said he believed the state law "was clearly not intented to prohibit public employees from engaging in politically neutral activities that are within the scope of their regular public employment and that are intended to be performed during working hours."

The governor's office said while he is considering asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to look into the matter, he has not made any request.