TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Supporters of three Florida Supreme Court justices seeking up-or-down retention votes say they're now less worried about losing due to indifference by the legal profession, the public and news media because the Republican Party's opposition to the trio has raised the race's profile.
The supporters had feared a repeat of what happened in Iowa two years ago when a late infusion of out-of-state money helped defeat three justices over a 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in that state.
"We've been telling people there was a stealth plane out there and nobody believed us," said former state Sen. Alex Villalobos, a Miami Republican who supports the three. "Then they flew it over the Capitol at 12 o'clock high."
The Florida Republican Party's executive committee announced Sept. 21 its opposition to the justices, breaking a longtime nonpartisan tradition.The GOP accused the justices of "activism" and criticized several of their decisions, including ordering a new trial for a convicted killer. That ruling was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices and their supporters countered that the Republicans and other opponents were threatening the independence of the judiciary by politicizing the retention elections.
After the announcement, newspaper editorial boards that once ignored the issue began criticizing the GOP for its stance while lawyers and others began writing checks and volunteering to help the justices, Villalobos said.
Villalobos, a lawyer, is among several high-profile Republicans who disagree with their party's decision to enter the fray. He heads a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called Democracy at Stake, which has been attempting for nearly two years to foster knowledge about merit selection and retention of Supreme Court justices and appellate judges.
The justices and judges are appointed by the governor and run for retention every six years. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince are on the Nov. 6 ballot. The other four justices ran in 2010. Voters have not removed a single jurist since Florida began retention elections in 1978.
In a four-week span starting a week before the GOP announcement, the campaigns of the three justices raised a combined $341,623. That pushed their total collected since Jan. 1, to $1.36 million.
Democracy at Stake cannot aid candidates but a spin-off political committee, Defend Justice from Politics, can. It has separately raised $1.45 million and is running television ads in Orlando, Tampa, Miami and West Palm Beach, spokeswoman Lisa Hall said.