Wednesday, October 17, 2012

“We are not politicians” – One on One with State Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince

“We are not politicians” – One on One with State Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince
Exclusive by José Pérez

One of the hallmarks of the American democratic system is the concept of checks and balances evident in the separation of powers.   Every sixth grader in every school in the United States has learned in his or her civics class that there are three branches of government:  the Legislature, which makes laws; the Executive, which executes laws; and the Judicial, which interprets laws.   In principle, no one branch is to have more power than any other.  Of course, if one goes back to first grade, he will remember “rock-paper-scissors.”  That is checks and balances, too.

Well, it appears that there are some people that are not happy with Florida’s current system of checks and balances and their move to alter how powers are separated in this state has made it to next month’s ballot.   Voters will have two choices to make next month that will determine whether or not the judicial branch will be able to maintain its share of state powers.  

In keeping with state law that concern judicial selection and retention by merit, three of the seven justices on Florida’s Supreme Court – R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince – are up for “reelection.”   We’ll talk about that shortly.

The other choice for voters is Amendment 5, a ballot initiative that seeks to change state law by allowing unprecedented legislative access to confidential court records, giving the State Senate the power to approve would-be Supreme Court Justices, and a simple majority to void court rules (instead of the current 2/3’s majority set out by law). 

Both initiatives all point in the direction of people – both inside and outside of Florida – that want to make the most of the long-standing supermajority Republicans enjoy in the State Legislature.    Right-wing groups like Restore Justice 2012 and Americans for Prosperity have been very busy trying to get Amendment 5 passed and Justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince ousted.

And that is not even the hard part.

How does a judge or justice, the very embodiment of the apolitical scales of justice, work against thinly-veiled partisan threats to his or her place on the bench or even the power of the bench itself?  Campaigning under normal circumstances is not easy given the slippery slope towards subjectivity on the campaign trail.

“That is a real challenge,” says Justice Quince, “because, as justices, we are not politicians.”

As the lone Black woman in Florida’s highest court and one of the three justices up for merit retention this year, Quince spoke to the Miami Times about merit retention, Amendment 5, and the unique nature of the courts as impartial arbiters in Florida’ system of democracy.

For about forty years, Florida’s judicial system has been built on a strenuous vetting process known as merit selection and retention.  The merit process requires indepth inquiries and investigations before a nominating commission sends a list of possible candidates to the governor. 

Quince went through this process in the late 1990’s in a very unique fashion.    In December 1998, Governor Elect Jeb Bush and outgoing Governor Lawton Chiles made Quince a Justice via “a joint appointment after being interviewed by both,” she remembered.    The irony of two of Florida’s iconic figures in their respective political parties both agreeing on the appointment of Quince to the state’s highest court, for Quince, “indicates that, to a certain extent, the process works.” 

“They were both looking for the same things: experience, character, and temperament.”

‘Courts cannot be lockstep with other branches’ 

So what does Quince think about Amendment 5 and its inherent threat to the impartial nature of the state judicial system?  She would not offer a personal opinion but did offer a professional observation.

“As I understand Amendment 5,  it is about rule-making, how the Supreme Court makes rules for how the entire court system operates,” said Quince.  “For example, a rule could outline a certain number of days to do something, establish deadlines, how to present a case.”

That “rule-changing” provision of Amendment 5 is curious as it pertains specifically to what Quince calls “a rare occurrence.”   How rare of an occurrence is the Legislature being so averse to a specific rule of court that it found itself as a body compelled to attempt to repeal it?  “I have been a justice since 1998 and I only remember it happening once.”  Thus, the question that remains to be answered is:  why go through so much trouble to change something that is rarely invoked by the Legislature?

Ultimately, the current politicized circumstance is challenging for Quince and her peers.  “Our judicial system and the selection and retention of judges and justices is non-partisan,” said Quince who explained that “the legislature and governor decided [in 1974] that we didn’t want our judges subjected to political whims.”

Why is it that insulation from partisan politics is so important to a judicial system as a pillar of an effective democracy?   Quince offered some insight.  “Judges make hard decisions and they can’t always be based on agreement,” said the sage barrister.   “The courts cannot be lockstep with the other branches – that is the beauty of our system,” said Quince.  In fact, the odd number of Justices on the State Supreme Court indicates that even that august body should not be monolithic as does the importance of dissenting opinions published as vital components of public record.   For Quince, the personal viewpoint of a judge “doesn’t matter:  constitutionally, every judge and justice has the same obligation.” 

*To read the printed version of this article, please click on this urlink.