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Top fundraisers for the quarter include a surprising black-robed bunch

Florida’s top fundraisers for the first quarter this year weren’t politicians or elected officials. They were three of Florida’s Supreme Court justices who face merit retention in November and fear being targeted by opposition groups that swoop in with last-minute campaigns attempting to oust them from the bench.

Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince each raised between $156,000 to $161,000 – mostly from lawyers and law firms -- for their retention effort since opening their accounts in January, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Division of Elections late Tuesday.

It's an amount that, when combined, “ranks among the most ever for a retention race,’’ said Dan Stengle, legal counsel for the justices merit retention campaigns. Lewis has raised $161,638, Quince raised $156,518 and Pariente $158,173.

For the last 40 years in Florida, justices on the high court must face merit retention, a process by which voters decide every six years in a yes or no if they should remain on the bench. Each of the justices was appointed by former Gov. Lawton Chiles (Quince was co-appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush) and each has faced a merit retention vote before.

But, Stengle says, this time things are different. “Our fair and impartial courts are increasingly being targeted by groups seeking to increase political influence over court rulings,'' he said. "The same group that waged a last minute stealth campaign against two of our Florida Supreme Court justices in 2010 announced its intent to remove all three justices who will be on the ballot in November.”

The announced opposition is from a group called Restore Justice 2012, a political committee run by Orlando Tea Party activist Jesse Phillips. He ran the unsuccessful campaign in 2010 to oust Justices Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry from the bench. The organization’s web site says that it has the support of American Justice Reform, a conservative group affiliated with the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, the Pacific Research Institute, the Center for Individual Freedom, the Manhattan Institute, ALEC, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Washington Legal Foundation.

Restore Justice’s web site claims “the Florida State Supreme Court has taken upon itself to decide matters lawfully left to voters to decide. They have disenfranchised every voter in the state on multiple occasions, and greatly overstepped their constitutional limitations, proving that they truly are one of the most activist courts in the nation.”

Unlike politicians, Florida’s justices are barred from soliciting funds themselves but must instead appoint a committee to handle all campaign finances. Contributions are limited to $500 per person and the justices are not allowed to endorse each other. They must maintain separate campaign accounts, although they are allowed to coordinate and share campaign expenses.

Since the merit system was adopted in the 1970s, few justices have had to conduct campaigns. Stengle said that the fundraising attempted by the three justices in the last three months are a sign "that the justices and the people of Florida take the challenge seriously."