TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Three veteran Florida Supreme Court justices could possibly face a criminal investigation and legal action over the handling of their campaigns to remain on the bench.
Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who has been critical of some of the court's past rulings, on Tuesday asked a state law-enforcement agency to decide whether to investigate the justices over their use of state employees to help finish election-related paperwork.
Meanwhile, a conservative legal group is raising questions about whether the justices may be violating ethics rules because they are raising money and urging voters to keep them on the bench.
"No man is above the law, particularly those charged with enforcing the law," said Shannon Gosseling, executive director of the Southeastern Legal Foundation.
Voters this fall will decide whether Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince deserve new six-year terms. Two of the justices were appointed by the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles; Quince was jointly appointed by Chiles and then-incoming-Gov. Jeb Bush.
The three justices nearly missed the deadline to qualify for the ballot in April. The seven-member court abruptly put a hearing on hold for more than an hour to allow the justices to finish their paperwork and turn it in to state elections officials with just minutes to spare.
The justices wound up using court employees to notarize the paperwork. A state law prohibits candidates for office from using state employees to help their campaign during working hours, although it is unclear if that law applies to judges. A violation of the law is a misdemeanor.
A Republican state lawmaker asked Scott to order an investigation, but the governor stated in a letter that he lacks the authority to order one. Instead he asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement - which reports to Scott and three other Republican officials - to independently decide if an investigation is warranted.
"I believe it is important for the people of Florida to have full faith and confidence in all government officials," Scott wrote Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood. "....Thus a full accounting of the events at issue ought to be provided, whereupon entities with appropriate jurisdiction...can take any necessary and warranted action."
Dan Stengle, the legal counsel for the three justices' retention campaigns, has said they did nothing wrong and that what state workers did was routine. Election records from 2010 show that four justices on the ballot that year also had their paperwork notarized by court employees.
Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for FDLE, said the agency is reviewing Scott's request and would make a decision later this week.
In Florida, appeals judges and supreme court justices are appointed by the governor. But instead of running for re-election, they are subject to an up or down merit retention vote.
In 2010, the state Supreme Court removed from the ballot three constitutional amendments pushed by the GOP-controlled Legislature including a "health care freedom" amendment sponsored by Plakon that would have made it illegal in Florida to have a health insurance mandate. Legislators in 2011 reworked the amendment and placed it on this year's ballot.
The Southeastern Legal Foundation - the same group that pushed to have President Bill Clinton lose his law license - contends that under the state's judicial ethics rules, the justices can't raise money or actively campaign unless they have organized opposition.
Stengle contends that a group known as Restore Justice 2012 is mounting an opposition campaign, so the campaigning is legal. He brushed aside any talk of a potential lawsuit from the foundation.
"They obviously can avail of themselves of any remedy they believe they have," said Stengle.
The head of Restore Justice 2012 group argues that his organization is just educating voters. The group's website complains about judicial activism and cites a past Supreme Court decision. IRS records also show that the group is registered as a political organization.
"We certainly have concerns about some of these decisions, but we are not expressly advocating for any vote, yes or no," said Jesse Phillips.
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