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Justice Lewis speaks out, says independence of 'entire branch of government' is under threat

Justice R. Fred Lewis told the Hillsoborough County Bar Association on Monday that the Republican Party of Florida's entry Friday into the judicial retention campaign shifted what had been a whisper campaign against the three justices into a frontal assault on the judiciary.

"This is the most stressful time I've ever experienced in my life,'' he said, three days after the party announced it will oppose him and two other justices because of their "activist" and liberal views. "I'm embarrassed to have to plead for our court system. If we fail, we fail the people of Florida. There is an entire branch of government to protect and defend. We cannot sacrifice fairness and impartiality and the court system to political whims."

Lewis, who is under fire for voting with the majority on a controversial 2003 opinion in which he delivered the dissent, chastised the party for getting its facts wrong when it released its statement last week.

In the case, the Florida Supreme Court reversed a conviction for murderer Joe Elton Nixon and ordered a new case, holding that because Nixon's attorney said he was guilty without Nixon's express consent he should be given a new trial.

Lewis, however, argued in his opinion that the court applied the wrong standard. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with him, overturned the decision in 2004, applied the appropriate standard and the Florida Supreme Court agreed. Nixon was never released, as the RPOF release impiled, and remains on death row.

"The U.S Supreme Court had to help us get it right,'' Lewis acknowledged. "But I wrote the dissenting opinion that the U.S. Supreme Court adopted and quoted in its opinion."

The party's executive committee either didn't do its homework, or "it's an attempt to force upon us an ideological opinion, damn the truth,'' he said. "I don't know whether to mock their incompetence or address the dishonesty. They say it, and it becomes fact."

Lewis, as well as Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, have already been retained once by voters since the 2003 case but during their last merit retention election, in 2006, the Florida GOP remained silent.

Lewis said that before Friday's announcement, "There was a whisper campaign, e-mails telling everyone how terrible we are.  The idea was to vote out all three justices so Gov. Scott could replace them."

Lewis urged the Hillsborough lawyers to come to the defense of the merit retention system, put in place under former Gov. Reubin Askew in response of a long history of abuse and corruption in the judiciary when justices were elected to office and politics played a role in the process.

"If we allow politics to overtake the three branches of government, we no longer will have the democracy we've enjoyed for 200 years,'' he said. "I'm trusting that somewhere in the middle there are fair-minded individuals who believe the court system is too valuable to kill through partisan politics."

Florida justices are not elected to office but instead are screened by a panel of legal experts, appointed by the governor and then must go on the ballot for retention every six years in which voters are asked to decide if they remain qualified for office.

Lewis said that he is concerned that if opponents succeed in opposing the three justices for political reasons, "in six years, will we have another political blood bath?"

He said he will continue to travel the state to spread the message that this is the wrong approach to retaining an independent judiciary.

"I didn't go to law school to be a quitter or to turn on our Constitution,'' he said. ""I may be preaching to the choir today, but we need the choir to sing to anyone who will listen. Florida will not fall to darkness."

-- John Barry and Mary Ellen Klas