According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle a Republican research firm in Florida is conducting opposition research on at least one of the nonpartisan candidates running for the Montana Supreme Court.
The newspaper writes that “a researcher at Data Targeting of Gainesville, Florida, filed on March 18 multiple requests with Cascade County officials for public information on Cascade County District Court Judge Dirk Sandefur, including his expense receipts, voting record, travel records, and case files, according to emails obtained by the Chronicle.”
According to the Chronicle the firm has a history of involvement in Montanan supreme court elections after the group filed public information requests on Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat during his 2014 campaign. Subsequent to the requests Justice Wheat was targeted by negative advertising booked by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and Americans For Prosperity. The RSLC spends frequently and openly on state races and booked over $175,000 worth of ads in this year’s Arkansas Supreme Court elections (see Gavel Grab).
Efforts are away across the South to tighten conservatives’ influence on a number of state supreme courts, Alex Kotch writes in Facing South, a publication of the Institute for Southern Studies.
The efforts are carried out “often in response to unpopular decisions by the courts or a fairly explicit ideological agenda to impact how courts are deciding cases,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, a Justice at Stake partner organization.
Frequent readers of Gavel Grab will be familiar with the initiatives. “Republican lawmakers are changing election laws, expanding the number of justices, adding term limits, and challenging appointments to create high courts more likely to uphold their legislation,” Kotch writes. He mentions activity in these states specifically: North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia. He also mentions outside group spending in the Arkansas Supreme Court election this week.
A proposal for term limits on appellate and state Supreme Court judges narrowly won approval in the Florida House, while one newspaper forecast it “faces a likely dead end in the Senate.”
The proposal was approved 76-38 in the House, with 72 votes needed to approve a constitutional amendment, according to The Associated Press. Meanwhile, MyPalmBeachPost said little interest has been shown in the plan in the state Senate and it likely will languish there.
During House debate, Democratic Rep. Jose Rodriguez said that the proposal hinted of retaliation against court decisions that displeased certain legislators. “[F]or many of us, this has a flavor of retribution,” he said. Read more
A proposal for term limits on appellate and state Supreme Court judges was approved by the Florida House Judiciary Committee along party lines, with one Democrat calling it “the worst bill moving through the Legislature” this season.
Republican backers have called the proposal a means to achieve more accountability of top judges, according to The News Service of Florida, while Democratic critics portray it as retaliation against court rulings that have displeased legislators.
The board of governors of The Florida Bar opposes the bill. You can learn more about it from Gavel Grab. The measure now goes to the full House.
As the House Appropriations Committee divided along party lines, Republican backers contended the measure would bring more accountability to judges, and they said an existing retention (up-or-down) election system is falling short of providing accountability.
Democratic leaders, in turn, questioned whether the proposal is more closely targeted at retaliating against judges with whom Republican legislators disagree. Sunshine State News noted that conservative legislators have been repeatedly thwarted by the state’s highest court on redistricting and other issues, when the court found the legislature’s action unconstitutional. Read more
In the Sacramento Bee, a commentary by editorial page editor Dan Morain highlights the big stakes at play in state judicial elections, and reports $90.1 million has been spent to shape state supreme court elections since 2011, according to Justice at Stake.
Tracing the work of a Sacramento political consultant who has advised clients in some state Supreme Court retention elections, Morain connects the dots between the Florida Supreme Court striking down parts of a Republican-drawn redistricting plan in Florida, and its ruling having resulted in a more Democrat-friendly district where former Gov. Charles Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat, is running for the U.S. House.
The consultant worked for Defend Justice from Politics, a group that urged Florida voters in 2012 to retain three justices who were targeted for removal from the court (for background, see Gavel Grab). The justices were retained, and ultimately were part of the court handing down the redistricting decision.
The Crist candidacy, Morain writes, “provides a lesson in why the makeup of a state supreme court 3,000 miles away matters … and on the threat posed to democracy by attempts often orchestrated by partisan conservatives to unseat justices Read more
“A measure aimed at asking voters to impose two-term limits on Florida Supreme Court justices and appellate judges made its way Tuesday through a House panel — but still faces a long route through the Legislature,” according to a report in The Palm Beach Post.
The move was described as blatantly political by The Tampa Tribune. “The proposal comes after years of rising anger in the Legislature at members of the Supreme Court,” the paper noted, adding that “the state’s highest court has emerged as the only major hurdle in Tallahassee to Republicans’ conservative agenda.”
The Tribune goes on to note an unsuccessful effort to defeat three members of the court majority — R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — in the 2012 elections. That year also saw an unsuccessful effort to weaken the state’s merit selection system by requiring state Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominees. The measure was defeated.
Florida’s Supreme Court justices and District Court of Appeals judges would be affected if the change were to be adopted, according to The Miami Herald. If the measure gains approval in the state House and Senate, it would be put before voters on the November 2016 ballot.
It appears that sponsors of a proposed constitutional amendment for judicial term limits in Florida “simply want a weaker judiciary,” Martin Dyckman, a former newspaper editor, writes at the Florida Politics blog.
Under the proposal, state Supreme Court justices and judges of district courts of appeal would be barred from seeking retention to a new term after they have served two full consecutive terms. That means limits, depending when a judge is appointed, from 12 to 14 years, Dyckman says.
Former Republican legislator J. Alex Villalobos told Dyckman, “Bad idea,” regarding judicial term limits. “This is a solution in search of a problem. Don’t we want the most experienced people running our courts? Today we have members of the Legislature running for Speaker or President and they haven’t even passed one bill. How is that working out?” Florida has term limits for its executive and legislative branches. Read more
Republican leaders of the Florida Senate and House Judiciary committees have begun talking about court “reform.” But they’ve actually been talking about weakening the courts, in retaliation for the state Supreme Court’s correctly saying legislators gerrymandered political districts, Scott Maxwell writes in an Orlando Sentinel column.
This kind of attack on fair and impartial courts violates bedrock principles of the checks and balances upon which our nation was founded, Maxwell writes, and it smacks of legislators’ attacks on the Florida courts several years ago that were rejected by voters.
Maxwell doesn’t give up hope. Perhaps the leaders are reconsidering, he says. “I still have faint hope that statesmanship will prevail — that seasoned leaders such as [House Speaker Steve] Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner will realize that today’s tantrum-throwing politicians have no business trying to blow up the separation of powers that has guided this nation for generations. Read more
The Florida Supreme Court ruled last month that almost a third of the state’s 27 congressional districts violated the state Constitution. This week, at a special legislative session, lawmakers sniped at the court.
According to the Bradenton Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau, the lawmakers challenged whether the court had respected the separation of powers between the judiciary and legislature and suggested it had practically adopted a revised map drafted by Democratic “partisan operatives.”
“How does the court come in here to run roughshod over the Legislature?” asked state Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican. Read more