Florida Keys News - Solares Hill
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Violating Florida's Separation of Powers

More than 200 years ago, Alexander Hamilton argued that "the complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution. Without this," he said, "all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing."

If Alexander Hamilton had foreseen how the Tea Party and a brace of billionaires are trying to destroy judicial independence in Florida (an unloved swamp at the bottom of Georgia back in 1787), no doubt he'd have urged Andrew Jackson to let the Spanish keep it.

State Supreme Court Justices Peggy Quince, R. Fred Lewis and Barbara Pariente will appear on the November ballot for a Yes or No "merit retention" vote. This happens every six years. You don't vote out a justice because you don't like one of his rulings. Or because you didn't like the governor who appointed her. The system is designed to get rid of incompetent, unethical judges. Now, nobody claims that Quince, Lewis and Pariente are incompetent or unethical. Certain Republicans (not all -- prominent GOP pols such as former Sen. Alex Villalobos loudly defend the justices ) want them gone for purely political reasons. Pariente and Lewis were appointed by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles; Quince by both Chiles and Jeb Bush. Pariente and Quince are the only women on the court; Quince is one of only two persons of color.

For soon-to-be-former House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, it's payback time. The state supreme court humiliated them by kicking several of their pet power-grabbing amendments off the ballot last election cycle. And Gov. Rick Scott is still smarting from the epic slapdown he got when he tried to usurp the state rulemaking process by executive fiat. The court said he "overstepped his constitutional authority and violated the separation of powers."

None of them will admit they're trying to saw off one of our government's branches; they're too busy hollering about a 5 to 2 decision by the Florida court in 2003 granting a murderer a new trial. This ain't exactly Willie Horton, y'all: the question was not whether this guy Joe Elton Nixon, who tied a woman to a tree and burned her to death, was guilty. He was. The question was whether he received a competent defense. That pesky old Constitution guarantees all citizens a fair trial -- not just the nice people. Yet to hear the talk, you'd think the Florida Supreme Court had declared Nixon innocent, popped open a bottle of champagne and given him a ride to the nearest sports bar.

All this happened nine years ago. Yet there wasn't a peep out of anybody six years ago when Pariente, Quince and Lewis were last up for retention. Here's what's really going on: Gov. Scott wants to pack the court with his own appointees. The chair of the party, of course, insists the campaign against the justices is a "grassroots uprising."

Lucky for us, the federal Constitution still outranks our state's political shenanigans. Otherwise -- We don't need no stinking constitution!

Our Founding Fathers knew that the judiciary had to be free from the whims of politicians and rich folks who think they can buy anything, even laws. Judges have to risk unpopularity in the name of due process. Otherwise, we have a government of two and a half branches, a government in which the likes of Dean Cannon, Mike Haridopolos and the governor can do anything they like. As Martin Dyckman, author of "A Most Disorderly Court," an excellent book on how bad Florida courts used to be, says: "An independent judiciary is to tyrants as sunlight to vampires."

I'm going to go plant some garlic and sharpen a stake.

Diane Roberts is Solares Hill Capital Bureau Chief.

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