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Prosecutor in murder case at center of retention fight says justices are being unfairly targeted

The prosecutor in a controversial murder case that has galvanized opposition to the three Florida Supreme Court justices up for merit retention said Friday that the criticism  of the justices is “offensive and unfair” and they are being “attacked for overtly political reasons.”

Curtis M. French was a senior assistant attorney general in 2003 when the court ruled against him and ordered a new trial for Tallahassee murder Joe Elton Nixon. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Florida court ruling and now, nine years later, the Florida Republican Party has used the high court’s decision as its rationale for ousting the three justices from the state Supreme Court. Nixon remains on death row.

French not only has no hard feelings against the justices, he told the Herald/Times, he believes the criticism of Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince is “politically motivated” and unjustified.

The Republican Party of Florida, as well as the conservative-leaning Restore Justice 2012 organization, have accused the justices of “judicial activism” for their ruling on the case. The party’s executive committee unanimously voted to oppose the justices retention because of this case and others.

 “They’re using the case that I worked on as a means to give Republicans the opportunity to appoint more right-leaning justices,’’ French said.

French, who retired from the AG’s office in 2005, said he briefed and orally argued the case before the Florida Supreme Court and then drafted the successful appeal that got the case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. He also drafted the state’s brief on the merits of the case as well as the reply brief, he said.

“I believe I am as familiar as anyone with the issues in the case and that I am well qualified to comment on the accusation that the ruling of the Florida Supreme Court was ‘unprincipled,’’’ he wrote in an email.

“While I of course disagreed with the decision of the Florida Supreme Court (as did Justice Lewis, who dissented), I strongly disagree with the charge that the decision was unprincipled, and with any suggestion that these three justices are unprincipled or that they disregard law and precedent when deciding cases,’’ French wrote.

Nixon was convicted of murdering, kidnapping and robbing a woman from a Tallahassee mall parking lot, tying her up with jumper cables and lighting her on fire. During the trial, the public defender conceded Nixon’s guilt in the murder as a trial tactic intended to win sympathy from the jury and avoid a death sentence during the sentencing phase of the case.

But Nixon argued on appeal that he had not agreed to what amounted to a guilty plea. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial, citing legal precedent, but French appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and got the state court’s ruling overturned.

“There were people in the attorney general’s office that thought the Supreme Court was right and I wasn’t going to get anywhere on my appeal,’’ he said Friday. “It was a matter of interpretation and I happened to be on the right side -- for once.”

French said he adamantly disagrees with that accusation and resents having his case being used to advance a political argument.

“I’ve appeared before them. I’ve read their decisions. I’ve answered their questions in my own arguments and they are very astute questions,’’ he said. “I respect their intellect and their judicial abilities and I intend to vote to retain them and I urge everyone else to do so.”