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GOP Senators: 'RPOF, Stop Politicizing Merit Retention Race'; GOP Party Says It's Not Backing Down

Several Republican Senators in Florida say they’re disappointed in their own party for “politicizing the merit retention election” for three state Supreme Court Justices. But, the Republican Party of Florida is firing back, saying those Senators are just out of step with the rest of the party.

In late September, the Republican Party of Florida’s executive board voted to oppose the retention of three Supreme Court Justices:  Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince.  

The party joins the voices of several groups, like Americans for Prosperity and Committee to Defend Justice from Politics, who have recently already come out with TV attack ads.

This is the first time a Florida political party has taken a position on a race that’s been traditionally non-partisan, since the merit retention process began in the 1970s.

Several groups have come out against the state GOP’s decision to oppose the Justices, and now three Republican lawmakers are adding their names to the mix, including outgoing Senator Paula Dockery, who’s term-limited.

“I am a Republican. I am disappointed that my party took this route," remarked Dockery. "There are a lot of Republicans, who are standing up and stating that they don’t agree with this, mostly people who are in the Justice system, a lot of attorneys, who know that this could have a chilling effect on the outcome of cases. And, that’s the worst thing that could happen for our Government in terms of separate, but equal branches.”

Other Republicans, like Senators Rene Garcia and Dennis Jones, have come out saying the move sets a bad precedent. But, Republican Party of Florida spokesman Brian Burgess disagrees. He called the effort a grassroots movement. He says the 38 people on the executive board who voted for opposing the justices are speaking for the people who elected them.

“If those Senators oppose, then that’s fine. Everybody’s free to do that," said Burgess. "The Republican Party believes in a lot of inclusion. But, those people are out of step with the grassroots of the Republican Party. The grassroots believe that these Justices have repeatedly politicized the court by doing things that are extra-legal and that by essentially ruling so far outside of what the law essentially requires.”

While Governor Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi have not taken a clear stance, at least one Cabinet member has given an opinion. While Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater says he has no qualms about his party’s decision, he personally would not have gone in the same direction. Meanwhile, Republicans, like former Senator Alex Villalobos from Miami, say the move by the state Republican Party does more harm than good.

If the three Justices are removed, it will be the first time since the beginning of the merit retention process in 1978 that a justice will have lost their seat due to a vote. Governor Rick Scott would then have to appoint their replacements. Scott’s selections would be based on recommendations from members of the Judicial Nominating Commission, some of whom were selected by Scott.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.