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October 15, 2012

Merit Retention
Now the state GOP is getting into the merit retention contests. This will be followed by the Democratic Party getting involved. This mess is the natural and predictable result of the ill-conceived Florida Bar “public education” campaign, a cute maneuver around election finance laws and a hypocritical use of Bar fees better spent on the poor.

There were plenty of us in both parties already supporting the justices’ retention privately and abundantly. Now the Bar will be portrayed to a cynical public to be engaging in partisan politics — instead of our real goal — standing up for the judicial independence of all judges.

The GOP will undoubtedly point out that when President Obama viciously attacked the U.S. Supreme Court, the Bar and its leaders had nothing to say about the danger of making judicial reasoning part of the political vortex. Now it is.

Thomas R. Spencer
Coral Gables


Is there any difference between “merit retention” and lifetime appointment during good behavior? The wise men of The Florida Bar seem to think not. They are indignant that anyone would campaign against the retention of a Supreme Court justice.

If “merit” means nothing more than having arrived at the election without a criminal conviction, then Justices Lewis, Pariente, and Quince deserve to retain their seats. But if intelligence and reasoning ability have anything to do with merit, then it is appropriate to read their opinions. Even a former Florida Bar president should be able to understand that.

Edward B. Greene
Ponte Vedra Beach


It seems to me that the leadership of the News and The Florida Bar really have no shame. For nearly one year, informed and articulate opponents of the misguided “voter education” campaign on merit retention have been relegated to 300 word (or less) letters to the editor.

Meanwhile, supporters of what is better described as a “voter re-education” campaign on merit retention have benefited from regular front-page placement of lengthy articles and hundreds of thousands of dollars of Bar resources for community outreach and celebrity justice endorsements.

Could the News not attempt to be neutral on this issue? Could it not find even one intelligent lawyer (from among the many expressing opposition) to write a real article in opposition and give it prominent and respectful treatment?

This entire campaign by the Bar leadership is an utter disgrace. Finally, for several prominent lawyers you repeatedly feature to deny that the three justices at issue are not demonstrably liberal in their jurisprudence is simply laughable. It would be like denying that the last two chief justices were not conservative in their jurisprudence.

James Lovely


Your right to an impartial judiciary, free from political pressure, is in jeopardy. Instead of recognizing his limited role in a system in which each of the three branches of government performs its independent duty in a constitutional system of checks and balances that limits the exercise of power by any one branch, Gov. Rick Scott is making a play for control of the judicial branch by attacking the independent judges of the state’s highest court.

The rapidly approaching November election is being used by Gov. Scott and his politicos to wage war on Florida’s long-standing ideal of an independent and impartial judiciary. Unnoticed by many voters, it is the intent of Scott and his political cronies to pack the Florida Supreme Court with judges of their own choosing and who possess the same political and social agenda. This attack is Scott’s counter to the Supreme Court’s ruling that the governor “overstepped his constitutional authority and violated the separation of powers” when Scott signed an executive order seizing control of the state rulemaking process. In fact, this governor has been on the losing side of many cases before federal and state courts, including the U.S Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the Affordable Health Care Act and federal courts’ blocking of random drug tests for state employees and welfare applicants. The courts also overturned legislation that favored Republican candidates by restricting new voter registration and early ballot casting. The vehicle for Scott’s attack on the state Supreme Court is the merit retention vote on the November ballot that will ask for a simple “yes” or “no” vote on whether to retain three sitting justices: R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente, and Peggy A. Quince.

In 1976, the voters of Florida adopted a system in which our Supreme Court and appellate justices are appointed, rather than elected, subject to a merit retention vote every six years. The current system was adopted as a defense to influence-peddling and case-fixing by judges indebted to those political parties, persons, or special interests who had financed or heavily contributed to the judges attaining their positions on the bench.

The current system was designed to function as a safety-valve to eliminate judicial bias while still enabling voters to remove a judge who had proven unfit for the bench. It is not intended as a political referendum, and no sitting justice or appellate judge has ever been displaced through this process.

The perpetrators of this attack have made it no secret that in the weeks leading to the election they will flood the airwaves with ads criticizing the justices’ rulings, intent on inflaming voters by raising what they believe is a “hot button” case. The case they have chosen is the Supreme Court’s order for a new trial in a 2003 death sentence murder case that was ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I urge each of you to do everything in your power to get the word out to the voters that Scott’s attempt to stack the court with his own judges will not be tolerated. Please use all the tools at your disposal — email, letters, telephone, etc. — to let the people of Florida know what is going on and to warn them of the dangers that could result from Scott’s efforts.

As Alexander Hamilton pointed out during arguments to ratify the Constitution some 225 years ago, “The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution.” Without this, Hamilton said, the rights and privileges conferred on us amount to nothing.

I ask each and every one of you to join the fight to maintain the independence of our high court and vote to retain Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara J. Pariente, and Peggy A. Quince in November.

Barry A. Cohen


They may have a right to do this, if we let them; but they have no right to say that it is in good faith.

An outside group calling itself Americans for Prosperity has attacked three Florida justices, two women, one of them black. Michael Peltier, “Conservative Group Launches Ad Attacking Florida Supreme Court” (Reuters copyrighted article published online by the Chicago Tribune, September 25). AFP is not from Florida. It is based in Alexandria, Virginia.

The people who back AFP financially are also not from Florida. AFP is funded by Charles and David Koch. The Kochs, two brothers, live in Kansas City, Missouri, and the New York City area, respectively.

For the first time in history, a political party is openly participating in Florida judicial elections now, too. The Republican Party of Florida is opposing the merit retention of the same justices who are opposed by the outside organization, AFP. The three justices are Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince.

Two of the three justices under attack are women. One of the three is black.

These attacks on judges by these groups in 2012 have backfired. People in Florida are not happy with them, let alone persuaded by them, judging from their unanimous rejection by newspapers from Florida, none of which support these attacks. And these attacks have instead highlighted an important issue here: Can Gov. Rick Scott be trusted to replace them with unbiased judges if they are not retained? Martin Dyckman, “An Independent Court is at Stake in Florida” (Tampa Bay Times Online, published September 24).

Outside agitators have come to Florida to attack Florida judges. We do not have a perfect system of justice in Florida; but we have a great system of justice in Florida. Tell these people to leave it alone.

Dennis J. Wall
Winter Springs

The News
Now that I am well into the second decade of my retirement from the legal profession, this letter to the News is long past due.

Thanks in large part to your publication, I have been able to keep up with activities in the Florida legal community. In particular, it has been great fun to read about the latest professional activities of my still-active contemporaries whose names continue to appear in the “News and Notes” and “On the Move” columns. It is also quite a relief to see the names from my generation of Florida attorneys all but disappear from the reported “Discipline Actions” section.

On a sad note, however, I must admit that when I receive each issue feelings of anxiety, dreaded anticipation, and all too often melancholy rush through my system about one column appearing in many, but thankfully not every issue. As the years have passed, it seems with increasing frequency each such “In Memorium” column contains the names of old friends and contemporaries, too many appearing far too prematurely. That said, however, I feel this is important information to announce to the Bar. I just hope it is many, many years in the future before I open a News issue and see my name listed there.

Thanks for the good work on the News. I just wish the Bar could see its way to include inactive members in the distribution of the Journal.

Morgan S. “Mike” Bragg
Blairsville, Georgia

GAL Heros
As a very busy practicing attorney, member of the Bar for 27 years, and a foster parent for less than two years, I recently had the unique experience of seeing dependency court as a foster mom.

I have never before written to the Bar, but am doing so now to applaud The Florida Bar for highlighting the needs of foster children, and publicizing the need for guardian ad litem volunteers. The GAL program was the one constant for my two foster sons. When the well-meaning, but jaded, court system thought 21 or even more months to terminate parental rights was acceptable, and when lengthy continuances and sloppy service of process merited only a yawn, the GAL program was always there to intervene. By that time, my two foster sons had endured not only profound neglect but six out of home placements in 15 months and as many school disruptions. Twenty-one months after removal from birth parents who flouted every substantive court order requirement, our foster sons were belatedly freed for adoption.

Our GAL team — attorney Cathy Altman, and zealous volunteer GAL Anna Shea — were there every step of the way to advocate for these two very confused little boys who had no voice. As a foster mom dealing daily with the effects of profound neglect and abuse, living with children experiencing violent night terrors and profound behavioral issues, and on speed-dial with school personnel, I was lost for words in court. Though an experienced trial attorney, I was all mom and all heart. In court I could hardly breathe, much less speak, and the GAL was my voice.

I believe that all dependency courtrooms should have pictures of children hanging on the walls. It so often seemed to me, in the audience, that my foster sons were mere footnotes, and that the “rights” of the parents seemed paramount. When the system thought lengthy delays, and inadequate service of process (using the wrong birth father name in notice by publication) were “good enough,” the GAL was the only party who shared my concern that this was unconscionable. When the termination of parental rights included approval of a three-hour “goodbye visit” for a parent still actively abusing drugs, and I was improperly excluded from the proceeding that determined this, the GAL listened to my protest that this was not in the best interest of two troubled little boys and that their child psychologist had not been consulted in the matter.

Every request I made on behalf of the boys received serious GAL attention, and they were the sole passionate advocate for our foster sons in court. At the end of the roller-coaster journey in June, my husband and I, and our biological children (19, 14, and 10) stood proudly in court with the GAL team beaming, and with a few tears shed, adopted two amazing children of promise, Steven (9) and Kaleb (8).

Their one constant throughout was their advocacy team, comprised of our family, their GAL team, Family Integrity Program social workers, DCF-provided child psychologist Dr. Sharon Schulman, and their St. Johns County (No. 1 school system in Florida for a reason) Ketterlinus Elementary School team. Working in concert and laser-focused on what was best for the children, we were a formidable and effective team. We never backed down, and it was always what was best for the little guys.

For attorneys who can find time to be a GAL, it will test your resolve, but you will make an incredible difference. Our sons are now excelling in third grade. One is in the gifted/blended program; the other is getting ready for a limousine ride he earned for his summer reading accomplishments. They are both kind and loving, curious and inquisitive, and I am so proud to be their mom. No one who knew them before can believe they are the same troubled children, and I owe it all to our committed team. They did not see two case files, but instead saw two amazing children of incredible promise.

For attorneys considering being GAL volunteers, know that your efforts are life-changing. For busy attorneys considering adopting from foster care, I can only share that for my family it was a daunting adventure, but one that has brought us untold joy.

Elizabeth Masters
St. Augustine

I read with much interest the article regarding legal residents in the October 1 News. Several years ago, I was asked by a friend to “just interview” a really bright young man who had been accepted to UF law school, but just wanted to shadow a real lawyer before going to law school.

I went to the lunch date with no intention of hiring him, as I physically had no place to put him, other than at the small round table in my office. Ten minutes after seeing him, fully dressed in suit and tie, resume and writing sample in hand, I found myself offering him $9 an hour to just shadow me and contribute as he could. I had been a prosecutor and then a criminal defense attorney for close to 20 years, so I thought he could learn something that might assist him in law school.

Little did I know that he was not only brilliant, but a complete sponge. He attended every court appearance and sat in my office, with no formal law experience, and listened to every conversation I had on the phone. He sat in on every consultation and asked important questions when I left the room to get paperwork. We spent many hours together, in close quarters, or in my car, with me explaining why we did things as we did, as well as how important it was to be an ethical lawyer.

The first year of law school was not such a shock to this gentleman. In fact, he called me shortly into the first year to ask if he might return to my office to work again. Knowing his potential, I didn’t hesitate to offer him a second round. This time, however, he knew legal research, which he had learned the previous summer, on the fly, in the course of a busy criminal defense practice. After year one of law school, we nicknamed him The Laser Beam, for his uncanny ability to find cases right on point. He continued to come to every court appearance, and I would debrief him again on why it had turned out as it had. He now understood more.

One morning, as we met to ride together to an appearance an hour away, he said he’d received an email stating he was “No. 1 in a class of 431.” (It was a form letter, but nevertheless stated he had done exceptionally well.) We could not help but think that his experience had indeed helped him.

That summer, I made a concerted effort to take him to lunch with friends who had practiced all varieties of law. I wanted him to hear from as many sources as possible what was out there, so that he could make an informed decision regarding what course to pursue. He subsequently got many interviews after his second year, and ultimately landed in a very plum job at a large South Florida firm. He’s a brilliant guy, but I cannot discount the time he spent as a “sponge,” just learning how the sausage was made.

I feel the idea of a legal residency is fabulous and should be implemented for either students or grads, but somewhere along the line, so that law students can get real-life exposure to clients and cases, before they cast their lot in any particular specialty.

I cannot take all the credit, but believe his experience made him a better law student and ultimately a far more employable new grad. I support the residency program all the way.

Robin Lemonidis

[Revised: 03-19-2017]