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Politics

Judicial Retention Battle Builds With Complaint Against Barbara Pariente

May 29, 2012 - 6:00pm

A gadfly, disbarred attorney has filed an official complaint over state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente's partisan remarks at a South Florida synagogue.

In a letter to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, Jack Thompson, of Coral Gables, called Pariente's speech "partisan, issues-related, evocative of her religion, and violative of various judicial canons."

Pariente last week told a gathering at Temple Emeth of Delray Beach that "a vote yes will be a vote to retain me and the other two justices. A vote no will give Governor [Rick] Scott the right to make his appointments, which will result in partisan political appointments."

Pariente's record has been under simmering fire from conservatives still seething over her rulings in the 2000 Bush v. Gore case and, more recently, in rejecting a statewide voter initiative on Obamacare.

Justices Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who voted the same way on those issues, also are up for retention votes in November.

Thompson accuses Pariente of misrepresenting the judicial retention and appointment process.

"The governor doesn't have free reign to put a tea party chairman or KKK member on the bench. He gets a short list of names from the Judicial Nominating Commission," which is largely controlled by the Bar.

"Pariente's scare tactics run counter to what she's required to do by the cannon of ethics -- which is to run on her record. Her attacks on a co-equal branch of government make it a narrow argument about herself.

"She must be worried," Thompson said.

Dan Stengle, legal counsel for the three justices' merit-retention campaigns, said he saw "nothing that Justice Pariente said that violated any judicial canons or election laws. Her reported comments were factual and truthful, and there was nothing inappropriate about what she said or where she said it.

"Justice Pariente, in the constitutionally-provided merit retention process, has every right to speak about merit retention and her role as a Supreme Court justice.

"She also considers it her obligation to the voters of Florida to discuss these issues and the importance of maintaining a fair and impartial judiciary that operates without fear or favor, as Floridians contemplated when they adopted the Florida Constitution," Stengle said.

Jesse Phillips, head of the conservative court watchdog group Restore Justice, said, "We are not questioning the legal qualifications of Justice Pariente.

"However, her actions speak louder than her words. You can't claim to be nonpartisan or independent while taking verbal stabs at another politician. Voters are eager for this activist court to stop playing political games, picking sides, raising unprecedented special-interest money and taking shots at our elected representatives.

"Bringing Governor Scott into the discussion is nothing more than a convenient distraction away from her questionable judicial record, which is being scrutinized like never before," Phillips said.

Scott's office, along with Attorney General Pam Bondi's office, received complaint letters from Thompson.

Scott press secretary Lane Wright told Sunshine State News: "We dont have a response to Mr. Thompsons letter, but as far as Judge Parientes comments go, we have seen her statements and are reviewing them to determine whats next."

Bondi's press secretary, John Lucas, said Wednesday afternoon: "We received Mr. Thompson's correspondence today and are in the process of reviewing his letter."

Francine Walker, spokeswoman for the Florida Bar, said her organization "does not have jurisdiction over the judges. The Judicial Qualifications Commission, a separate agency, does."

A spokesman for the JQC said commissioners are "not allowed to comment on" pending cases.

"We receive quite a few complaints about judges, and the commission investigators review every complaint," the spokesman said.

The 15-member commission, composed of judges and laypeople, meets every six weeks.

Since judicial retention elections began back in 1978, the Florida Bar has polled its members to rate their interaction with judges up for retention votes. Those results -- which invariably support retention -- are circulated to newspaper editorial boards and other groups. No judge seeking a new term on the bench has ever failed to be retained.

This year, the Bar has raised the stakes by committing $300,000 for what it calls a "public education campaign on the retention system."

"Ninety percent of voters don't know what it is," Walker said.

But though the Bar's $300,000 outlay is "two to three more" than in previous election cycles, Scott Hawkins, Florida Bar's president, maintains that its "broad education" effort is anything but partisan.

"There is a great lack of understanding about judges' role in democracy. I spoke recently with [former U.S. Supreme Court] Justice [Sandra Day] O'Connor, who expressed concern about voter apathy and a lack of engagement.

"Part of our mission is to promote the administration of justice, and our 52-member board decided to take a more proactive role in education."

Hawkins declined to address the complaints alleged in Thompson's letters to the JQC, Scott and Bondi.

Henry Handler, a former Palm Beach County Democratic Party chairman, reportedly paid for the temple room in which Pariente spoke.

And that, Thompson alleges, raises more questions about the retention campaign money trail.

Handler did not return Sunshine State News' request for comment.

Reach Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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