Hit with a barrage of criticism over the Republican Party of Florida siding with a right-wing conservative group in opposition to the state's three Florida Supreme Court justices, RPOF Chairman Lenny Curry roared back on Friday with an op-ed in a handful of newspapers and online sites.
Some news organizations, such as the Tampa Bay Times, have refrained from running it because they claim it includes false information.
"Here’s a riddle for Florida voters,'' Curry begins, in an opening laced with sarcasm. "Who wears a black robe, is sitting on a stack of a million greenbacks, and has a red face because voters get to decide whether or not they keep their jobs?"
He answers his rhetorical question by naming the state's three justices who are up for merit retention, Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince. Then adds:
"The three of them are sitting on a combined political war chest of more than a million dollars, given to them by special interest groups, trial lawyers and political activists. And they are red-faced with anger that voters get to decide their fate at the ballot box."
Curry said the idea of opposing the three justices sprung from a "grassroots groundswell raised the issue ahead of a board meeting" and he denied persistent rumors that the issue was inserted onto the agenda at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott, who will be able to appoint replacements if the three justices are not retained.
"They couldn’t be more out of touch with reality,'' Curry wrote. "...the governor had nothing to do with it."
"They got caught red handed,'' said Dick Batchelor, a former state legislator and spokesman for a political committee working on behalf of the justices, called Defend Justice From Politics. "The Tea Party, the Republican Party and the Koch brothers got caught dumping money into the race on merit retention and this is their attempt to cover their tracks."
He said that Curry should instead be answering the question: "What is their agenda?,'' Batchelor said. "I suggest what they want to do is not just control the Supreme Court, they want to own it."
Other advocates for the three judges said that Curry had his facts wrong. "The justices have never 'personally' solicited any money,'' said Lisa Hall, spokeswoman for Defend Justice from Politics, the electioneering and communications organization.
Pariente, Quince and Lewis have each formed separate political committees, each run by a "Committee of Responsible Persons" which is comprised of individuals who make the requests for donations. They have each raised between $330,000 and $350,000 -- mostly from lawyers -- for their retention campaigns.
The justices may attend fundraisers but they stay away from the requests, she said. "They will leave the room when the committee folks ask for money,'' she said.
Curry says this practice has been in place for years, and "frankly there is nothing wrong with that."
"What is wrong is their disingenuous attempt to portray themselves as “above politics,” when they are mired in it and it permeates their very existence,'' Curry concludes.
"What’s more, everyone – the Republican Party of Florida included – agrees that these justices should be able to render legal opinions that transcend their political beliefs. But that is exactly the problem. Grassroots members of the RPOF believe these justices have failed in this duty, which is why voters must carefully consider whether they deserve another six years on the bench. And everyone has a right to free political speech, even Supreme Court justices."
Hall also finds Curry's defense of the grassroots suspect. There was no talk of this issue during the party's last grassroots event, the Republican National Committee, and many critics doubt Scott wasn't involved.
"To suggest that the Repblican Party would take this highly controversial position at the behest of the fringe without the knowledge of the governor is beyond believeable,'' she said.
John Thrasher, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and a state senator from St. Augustine, supports the party decision. As a young lawyer out of law school, he worked with the former state Rep.
Sandy D'Alemeberte as the legislature was rewriting the state's judicial code and crafting the merit retention provision to the state Constitution.
"I understand the role of merit retention,'' he said. "I also think there is room for debate over some of these folks and whether they should be judged on whether they have been interpreting law or making law."