Time to take a Stand: Democracy at Stake
The current battle to remove Justices Pariente, Quince, and Lewis is a perversion of democracy and a threat to our liberty. It is a knee jerk, and childish, reaction to a judicial decision. These are excellent jurists who should not face removal simply because a group of disgruntled citizens dislike President Obama or his health care policy. If we fail to protect these justices from this attack, our judicial branch, and its ability to faithfully assure justice, will be fatally wounded.
Florida’s system of selecting and retaining Supreme Court Justices is in political jeopardy, despite the fact that the system is crafted to minimize if not eliminate politics from the process. Florida’s system for elevating Supreme Court justices has long been a shining example of democracy at its best. Our judicial branch, with the Supreme Court at its helm, is designed to operate as a co-equal branch of government, vested with the responsibility of providing checks and balances on the power of the politically elected legislative and executive branches. The Founding Fathers of our democracy had a keen understanding of the dangers of unbridled authoritarian rule. When they designed our democracy, they understood that the legislative and executive branches, if left unchecked, could and probably would cause great harm to our system. They recognized that the politically elected branches were at risk for two separate evils: (a) the “tyranny of the majority,” where the majority of the voting public tramples on the individual rights of minority citizens; and (b) the undue influence of the power elite, where wealthy interests exert undue financial and political pressure on the elected officials, thereby creating unjust laws and unjust enforcement of the laws. The Founding Fathers designed the third branch, the judicial branch, as an opposing force to the other branches. The judicial branch would have the power to declare laws unconstitutional and to require compliance by the other two branches with valid laws in place. In the federal system, the Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, almost entirely insulated from political pressure.
In Florida, rather than elect our Supreme Court justices and thereby subject them to the identical whims and twin evils influencing the other two branches, our Supreme Court justices are appointed, with input from the Florida Bar Association and from the Governor’s office. Although recent Florida governors have tinkered with this system, granting themselves more authority and limiting the power of the Bar, the system remains an appointment process with political influence diluted.
Once our Justices are appointed, they retain their seats provided that the majority of voters elect to retain them. They do not face opposition candidates. Rather, they face “merit retention” votes. Again, the idea is to de-politicize the process. With all these mechanisms in place, the idea we Floridians have committed ourselves to the ideal that Justices should be selected and retained based on their level of competence, not on their political philosophies. We challenge our Justices to do what is right, and to reach opinions based on their knowledge and understanding of the law, not based on the opportunistic whims of politics. So far, this system has worked well.
But now, motivated in large part by an offshoot of the Tea Party movement, there is a mounting attack against three sitting justices — Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince. These three highly capable, and highly respected jurists have committed the cardinal sin in the minds of this attack movement. They had the temerity to strike a ballot initiative that would have eviscerated the President’s health care plan. Obama opponents turned their ire on the justices.
And so, we now face a situation, similar to one that played out in Iowa in 2010, where a politically motivated group is seeking to demean, defame, and destroy the careers of these elegant and respected Justices simply because they disagree with their judicial opinions in a given case. At stake is the perversion of our Judicial system, and the success or failure of the effort to convert our system from one of reasoned jurisprudence to a poorly disguised system of political justifications. Will our system be based on reason and precedent, or will it devolve into a system as corruptible and subject to political influence as the legislative branch? And if our system does devolve, where will we turn for enforcement of our civil liberties? How will we ever hold our government, corporations, or the most powerful in our society accountable? Our Justices must remain independent of politics if we wish to preserve our freedom.