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Amid mounting pushback, Scott stands by RPOF decision on merit retention vote

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday stood by the decision of the Republican Party of Florida to oppose the three justices up for merit retention, despite mounting opposition to the issue from several prominent Republican attorneys, including a top advisor to his transition team. 

Scott would not say how he will vote but said it was the party’s right to oppose the justices.

“The Republican Party makes the decision what they want to get involved in,’’ Scott told reporters Tuesday. “But it’s a retention vote, it’s important for all the citizens to decide if they want to keep judges or not. It makes a lot of sense.” 

An advisor to Scott's transition team and former Monroe County Sheriff Allison DeFoor, as well as former U.S. Attorneys Roberto Martinez and Marcos Jimenez, wrote to Republicans Monday urging them to ask the executive committee to rescind its decision.  

“The RPOF was within its legal right to express its position publicly,’’ the three lawyers wrote. “But, just because it has that legal right, does not mean it was right for it to do so. The retention of Supreme Court Justices should not be turned into partisan political affairs.” 

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater was more forthcoming. Although he would not take a position on the issue, he said he would not have recommended the party get involved. He said he supported it nonetheless.

“I’m not comfortable it’s the best place for the party to decide it’s going to weigh in on retention of justices,’’ he said. “But I certainly have actually no qualms that members within a party or at such an event that that’s a decision they choose to make.”

Scott said that he was not aware of RPOF chairman Lenny Curry consulting with anyone on his staff about the decision. 

“Lenny Curry runs the Republican Party of Florida,” Scott said.

Curry told the Herald/Times that the motion to oppose Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barabara Pariente and Peggy Quince for merit retention came from Hillsborough County executive committeeman AJ Matthews at a meeting of the RPOF executive committee on Sept. 17.

 The board had taken its formal vote on candidates and constitutional amendments and Matthews suggested the board also take a position on merit retention, something the party had never before done, Curry said.

Curry said that the idea "wasn't on the agenda and I wasn't ready for it" so he suggested that they “recess and come back after a couple of days.” 

“I made some individual calls to board members to say, ‘Where’s your head? Do you think it’s a good thing? What’s the up side? What’s the down side? At the end, the body gets to speak and we, as a body, decided to say: ‘Do not retain.’” 

Two days later, the executive committee re-convened in a second telephone conference call and voted unanimously to pursue the no vote.

 “After the discussion, we felt we did the right thing,’’ he said.  

Matthews, a retired police officer, said he made the motion because he believes the justices have "been trying to legislate from the bench."

"The bottomline for me is I didn't agree with the way they ruled on several cases,'' Matthews said.

Scott said that when voters ask his opinion on the merit retention decision, he answers, “I think they should vote.” 

Scott also refrained from indicating how he will vote on Amendment 5, the only amendment on the ballot that the RPOF executive committee declined to endorse. It would dilute the governor’s appointment power and require that the governor’s appointments to the Florida Supreme Court and the state appellate courts receive Senate confirmation.

 “I’ll leave it to the voters,’’ Scott said.

Curry said that he did not know the governor's position on Amendment 5, but "was using my instincts" when he recommended to the executive committee not to take a position on it because there is differing opinions on it between the legislature and governor's office.

"No one else asked me to take that positon,'' Curry said. "I don’t think it's wise for the party to get involved...We are all Republicans -- the House, the Senate, the governor's office. I don’t think it's wise that we get involved in anything that engages multiple Republicans.''

 Attorney General Pam Bondi also declined to take a position on the controversial move by the RPOF to get involved in the merit retention vote.

 “I am staying out of the issue,’’ she told reporters Tuesday “I have many many cases in front of the Supreme Court and that’s up to the people to decide. I’m not taking a position on it and that’s not going to change.”