A witness to scandal
By Gayle Andrews
I began my career as a television news reporter in the capitol in 1974. It was a historic time. The huge changes to Florida government happened because the scandals threatened to paralyze state government and the judiciary.
Here’s how it went. Three cabinet members, the comptroller, the insurance and education commissioners, all statewide elected officials, were indicted for serious wrongdoing. Next to desegregation, this was easily one of the most chaotic times in our state’s history.
Remarkably, the Supreme Court scandal, involving three justices, erupted at the same time. It was an “oh no” moment. There was a rational for the Cabinet meltdown, but to watch the high court sinking into the political corruption abyss, honestly, was just too much.
We reporters were pretty obnoxious with our TV cameras and microphones pointed in officials’ faces. Our lights blinded the cabinet officers as we trapped them in elevators. And finally, we watched them teary eyed in the courtroom being sentenced, begging for forgiveness and leniency. But the Supreme Court impeachment hearings took us to a different place. It made us realize that political influence and money had permeated a realm that up until this point was no place for politics.
Two justices were accused of using opinions written by utility lawyers. The third was accused of the same but he claimed he flushed the document down the toilet. For that justice, a psychiatric examination was ordered. He returned to the House Committee with his Certificate of Sanity. That episode only added to the rapid deterioration of the court’s once revered status. I was a very young reporter at the time, but I realized that this was very serious.
Political influence had seeped into the state’s highest court and corroded the process and judicial outcomes. Big changes would emerge affecting the appointment of judges, and how they would campaign. It was ushered in by Governor Reubin Askew who helped restore faith in the process of selecting and electing judges in Florida. It’s called merit retention. It is the process we use today of voting yes or no for justices and judges.
Governor Rick Scott and other Republican lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to gain greater control over the high court largely because the court has struck down many of the new laws Scott has signed. But the latest attempt to undermine merit retention comes in the form of the kind of political influence peddling that nearly destroyed this very important part of our democracy. The Republican Party of Florida went even further with its meddling by asking people to vote against Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and the first Black female justice Peggy Quince. These justices have been impartial and forthright when reviewing cases that are very important to Floridians. They have done their job well and should receive a yes vote.
For us to follow the Republican Party that engaged in voter suppression and now wants to control judicial decisions, would take us back to a pay to play system. It has no place in the Florida Supreme Court and defies the thing we treasure most and that’s equal justice.
Gayle Andrews is a former member of the Capitol Press Corps, adjunct Journalism instructor at Florida A & M University, where she was awarded Distinguished and Outstanding Graduate status. She is a corporate & political consultant in Tallahassee.