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Cannon lashes out at GOP critics and Florida Bar in merit retention fight

Outgoing House Speaker Dean Cannon, a vigorous critic of the Florida Supreme Court , chastised critics of the Republican Party of Florida, which has come out in opposition to the three justices up for merit retention.  

“It is political speech,’’ Cannon said Wednesday. “The very people who are opposing the merit retention process now, asked for this system back in the 70s and 80s and they who consider themselves the defenders of free speech and political participation should be ashamed of themselves for criticizing people for or against justices,’’ he said.  

Last week, the Republican Party of Florida took the unprecedented step of entering into the debate on a merit retention vote for Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barabara Pariente and Peggy Quince, who are each on the November ballot. State law requires that the justices come before voters every six years to determine whether they continue to demonstrate the qualities needed to render fair and impartial rulings. 

The decision of the party to get involved has come under fire from critics on both sides of the aisle, as well as Justice Lewis who warned that the judiciary is under assault because of partisan politics.   

Cannon, a lawyer who is in the process of moving his law firm from Winter Park to Tallahassee, has been a critic of the high court since the court struck down three constitutional amendments written by the Legislature in 2010. He said it is “ludicrous” for people to argue that it is inappropriate for a political party to enter into this debate.

He said that “merit retention is one of the only accountability checks on the judicial branch left. I think it was wise that we stopped having elected justices back in the 70s or 80s, or whenever it was, but frankly merit retention is intended to be an accountability check on justices. As such, the very reformers that are criticizing the participation in the process -- they created it.” 

Cannon called out Sandy D’Alemberte and Dick Batchelor, two former Democratic state legislators who have criticized the Republican Party of Florida for politicizing the debate by opposing the retention of the three justices.

D’Alemberte was one of the architects of the merit retention system, which was approved by voters in 1976 as one of several judicial reforms put in place in the wake of corruption on the Supreme Court and to remove the party politics from the judicial system.

 “They asked for it, they got it,’’ Cannon said.

D’Alemberte and Batchelor, however, have not criticized all opposition to the justices. Instead, they argue the merit retention system is not designed to be a referendum on judicial rulings – as Cannon and others suggest -- but instead a check on whether the justices demonstrate the qualities needed to render fair and impartial rulings.

Cannon also lashed out at the Florida Bar, which has conducted an education campaign to instruct voters about the merit retention process.

“They are using $300,000 of our bar dues for a so-called merit retention campaign, which is a thinly-veiled effort to support the justices when they certainly didn’t do that when (Justice Charles) Canady and (Justice Ricky) Polston were up two years ago,'' he said. "I think the bar is in fact political. I think it is acting politically and it is hypocritical when they suggest this is about the politicization of the judiciary.”

Canady and Polston were both appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, and were successfully approved in a merit retention election in 2010.

That same year, three justices were removed from the Iowa Supreme Court after outside conservative and religious-backed groups financed last minute attack ads criticizing the justices for ruling that an Iowa law barring same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

Iowa legal scholars said it was a misuse of the state’s merit retention and selection system.

Cannon criticized the court as his first act as speaker in 2011, claiming that it did not have the authority to strike down the legislature’s amendments from the 2012 ballot. Late in the legislative session, he then pushed a proposal to dramatically change the state court system by adding three justices to the court and then splitting the court into two five-member courts, with one handling criminal cases and the other civil cases.

Cannon withdrew his proposal when it was clear there weren’t the votes to pass it in the state Senate but he succeeded in getting a compromise plan through that would put an amendment on the 2012 ballot that would give the the legislature more authority over judicial appointments.

Under the plan, the Senate would be given confirmation power over the governor’s nominees to the Supreme Court and the House would get access to the investigative reports of the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Supporters say the measure, Amendment 5, will make the appellate court system run more efficiently and add a layer of accountability before Supreme Court justices are appointed. Opponents counter that it is a dangerous attempt to inject politics into the judiciary by giving legislators more authority.

Cannon said that the opponents of Amendment 5 are “missing the fact that it will actually put the Florida system more in line with the federal Constitution.”

He said he “would be supportive of going for a complete federal system – where they are appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate and serve until their mandatory retirement age.’’

The Florida Bar created the education campaign in part as a response to the 2010 Iowa vote, hoping to educate voters about the need to protect judges from fearing for their jobs if they follow the law but make an unpopular ruling. Part of the group’s campaign includes a video statement from retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was appointed to the court by former President Ronald Reagan.

In it, O’Connor says that many people may not know the names of the justices and judges on the November ballot but “there is something you do need to know about. Retention elections in Florida are very important.”

She said that for fair and impartial justice to be continued in Florida, justices appointed must be able to operate “without fear of retaliation for making a decision. That’s called judicial independence and judicial independence is very hard to create or establish and it’s easier for most people to imagine to damage or destroy.’’

O’Connor commended the current merit retention process saying that “for more than three decades, Florida’s merit retention system has helped buffer decisions” but, she added, “in order for the system to work, the voters in Florida have to educate themselves and to make informed decisions. This is a very important and historic moment for the Sunshine State of Florida.”