TALLAHASSEE, FL – State Rep. Perry Thurston (D-Plantation), the incoming House Democratic Leader, issued the following Open Letter to Floridians regarding Florida’s independent judiciary. In the letter, Rep. Thurston urges Floridians to vote “no” on Florida’s Amendment 5, “yes” to retaining three Florida Supreme Court justices, and he asks Floridians to call on State Attorney General Pam Bondi to reject the Republican Party of Florida’s attack on the independent judiciary.
An Open Letter to Floridians about Florida’s Independent Judiciary
From State Representative Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, Florida House Democratic Leader-designate
Just before noon on Nov. 16, 2010, my legislative colleagues and I were held in rapt attention in the House chambers. From a high podium in the center of the room, a speech was underway.
“For the judiciary to be independent, it must also be impartial and apolitical,” I recall hearing.
How true, and yet how ironic. It was, after all, Dean Cannon, a principal in this year’s Republican Party of Florida (RPF) attack on the Florida judiciary, who offered the sage comment during his first speech as House Speaker.
But as it turns out, we’ve come to learn that the “impartial and apolitical” Florida judiciary envisioned by Speaker Cannon isn’t a co-equal partner with the executive and legislative branches. Rather, by their actions, Speaker Cannon and other partisans have proven that what they really want is a judiciary under the levers of Republican leadership.
This fall, the RPF took the unprecedented step of attacking the merit retention vote for Florida Supreme Court Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince, who are on the November general election ballot.
Every six years, state law requires that the justices come before voters to prove whether they still demonstrate the qualities needed to render fair and impartial rulings. The merit retention system, which ended campaigning for the high court, is designed so that justices can operate without fear of political retaliation for their decisions.
It’s a merit retention system that the RPF is out to destroy. Such destruction will leave us with a politicized and weakened court, the only branch of government that gives ordinary citizens the same respect as well-heeled political interests.
Why would Republican Party leaders seek to undo such a unique and fundamentally American concept as an independent judiciary? Perhaps their motivations stem from having lost a highly publicized case at the high court only months prior.
Regardless, Speaker Cannon said in his Nov. 16, 2010 speech that Florida Supreme Court justices are among the “threats to our liberties” and the “threats to freedom.” So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us that under Speaker Cannon’s leadership, Republican legislative leaders sought in 2011 to break the seven-member Supreme Court in two. Their plan would have added three justices and created separate civil and criminal divisions. Thankfully, the effort by Cannon was withdrawn in the face of bipartisan legislative resistance and opposition from the state’s legal community.
A less egregious version of Cannon’s strategy survived in the form of a constitutional amendment that appears on the November ballot. It’s Amendment 5, which I hope voters will reject. Should Amendment 5 be approved, the Legislature would have unnecessary control over how the courts operate and have influence over who serves as Supreme Court justices.
As my respected colleague, Rep. Darryl Rouson, an attorney and Democrat from St. Petersburg, stated a few days ago in calling for an end to partisan interference of the Florida Supreme Court: “Justices should be selected by the depth of their constitutional knowledge and ability to come to reasonable conclusions, not their willingness to succumb to popular beliefs or the arm-twisting of the majority political party.”
Accordingly, I urge you to follow the advice of the League of Women Voters of Florida and vote “no” on Amendment 5, and to vote “yes” to retain the justices of the Florida Supreme Court.
I also urge Floridians to call upon State Attorney General Pam Bondi, as Florida’s chief legal officer, to join me in publicly rejecting the RPF’s attack on our independent judiciary.