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Former justice joins pushback in merit retention debate over FSC justices

Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero joined in the defense of Florida's three justices up for merit retention in the face of a recent "report card" by a conservative group aimed at ousting the judges.

Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince are up for a yes-or-no merit retention vote in November, as required by law every six years.

Cantero, who appointed to the bench by former Gov. Jeb Bush and served for six years, said in a conference call with reporters that the merit retention system was designed to allow voters to remove justices for misconduct, inside or outside of office, and his colleagues deserve to be retained.

He said that the majority of opinions that come from the court were unanimous decisions, but only the small fraction of the opinions rendered drew dissenting opinions and those get the attention.

"Those in which I did dissent I felt there was a peaceful difference of opinion among reasonable people,'' he said. "I do not believe my former colleagues conducted any kind of misconduct that would warrant their removal from office."

He said that if voters reject justices based on disagreements over their judicial ideology, "it would set a very danagerous precedent for our state and would now make the judiciary another political branch of government,'' he said.

"My strong feeling is, if we start turning the merit retention process into a political vehicle, then we are turning the judiciary into another political branch of government, which the Founding Fathers of our country specfically intended to avoid," Cantero said.

The Orlando-based political committee, Restore Justice 2012, launched a scorecard last week that measures how the justices ruled on 10 controversial cases in which they were divided. Another conservative organization, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, has filed a lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court against the justices, claiming they violated state campaign law when they allowed office staff to notarize their campaign papers.

Meanwhile, the justices have raised more than $1 million for their merit retention campaign while Restore Justice has reported raising only $41,000. Alex Villalobos, a former state senator and president of Democracy at Stake, which is defending the justices, said they fear that last minute money will pour into the state from outside groups as it did in Iowa in 2010 when three justices were removed on that state's merit retention ballot.

Dick Batchelor, a former Democratic state lawmaker and child advocate who is working with Defend Justice from Politics, blamed much of the current focus on the aggressive attempt by state legislators and Gov. Rick Scott to back a policy promoted by outgoign Speaker of the House Dean Cannon that would have removed some of the judiciary's autonomy, including giving the governor the authority to appoint all judges.

He called it "an attempt to hijack the court for political purpoes that to me is very dangerous." He said the wall between the three branches of government was intended to protect access to government and the legislature in recent years "have minaturized the individual over the monied interests."

The constitutional amendments proposed by the Republican legislative leaders, from the proposal to undercut the Affordable Care Act to the proposal to weaken the Fair Districts redistricting amendments, were rejected by the court for sound legal reasons but it is now being used against the justices for politics.

"It was an arrogant act of the legislature -- brazen political,'' he said. "In watching this process unfold, this is not about jurisprudence...It's really about raw politics and who is going to control every branch of government."