By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Facing unprecedented political opposition, three Florida Supreme Court justices are fighting back against Republicans and conservative activists seeking to change the balance in the state's highest court by getting voters to fire them.
Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince face what is called a "merit retention" vote in November.
Normally that would be a routine affair with little political campaigning. This time, the three have been targeted by the Republican Party and conservative advocacy groups who accuse them of judicial activism.
Last month, Florida's Republican Party launched a public broadside against the three justices, saying they were "too extreme." Days later, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group with strong ties to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, launched its own ad campaign critical of the justices.
Even before the campaign against them picked up in late September, the three had long been criticized by conservatives. They have amassed more than $1 million in campaign funds, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
The reports show that for the two weeks ending September 28, the three raised more than $130,000 between them. The vast majority of donations to their cause has come from attorneys and law firms.
Backers of the justices have also formed their own political committee, Defend Justice from Politics.
TRUST IN THE SYSTEM
On Friday the justices took direct aim at the campaign to oust them, telling an audience of mostly law students at Florida State University that politics should be kept out of the courts.
The retention vote is nothing short of a litmus test on the independence of the court and the viability of a democratic state, Lewis said, at times choking back his emotions.
"If the system is preserved, I think the people can trust it and say we are not going to let partisan politics alter who we are as Floridians," he said.
Quince said the three justices knew after the 2010 elections that they would likely be targeted. "We had some inkling that this was going to happen and that is why we started preparing," Quince said.
The three have been on the prevailing side of decisions that have rankled Republicans and conservatives for more than a decade. In 2000, they joined the majority to demand that ballots be recounted in Florida's presidential election debacle.
In 2010, the trio also thwarted a state Republican-led constitutional amendment to oppose President Barack Obama's health care reform law. A reworded version of the non-binding amendment is back on the ballot in November's election.
Under Florida law, justices must face a merit retention vote every six years to stay on the bench.
In September, a Florida Bar survey gave the three justices an average approval rating of more than 90 percent. During the last retention vote in 2006, all three garnered at least 67 percent of the vote.
Florida Supreme Court justices are limited by judicial canons in what they can say. But Lewis, Pariente and Quince have stepped up their defense against what their supporters describe as spurious charges of "judicial activism."
"The average Floridian wants a fair court," said Lewis, who was appointed by Governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, in 1998. "They want an impartial court and they do not want decisions made for political considerations," Lewis said in an interview posted on his website.
"They do not want a judge or a judicial system that is beholden to special interest," added Pariente - also appointed by Chiles - on her campaign website.
Quince was appointed in the final weeks of Chiles' term and was backed by his successor as governor, Republican Jeb Bush.
'HIJACK' THE COURT
If a majority votes against the three justices, replacements will be appointed by the state's Republican governor, Rick Scott, a former healthcare executive and avowed enemy of Obama's healthcare reform.
"The grassroots opposition to these judges stems from a long list of cases in which these justices have injected their own political views into their rulings," Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry wrote in a recent opinion column.
Some accuse the Republican Party, and conservative activists themselves, of taking partisanship and politicking too far.
"Although the (Florida Republican Party) was within its constitutional right to express its position publicly, it was a mistake for it to do so as a partisan position," said Roberto Martinez, a Republican attorney and former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
"It is a mistake for any political party to inject itself as partisans," he added.
The Florida Democratic Party has not taken a stand in the case, but the party's chairman, Rod Smith, has been an outspoken critic of the recall push.
"The last thing you want is for a message to be sent to judges that if you don't rule with us, you'll pay a price for it," said Smith, a former state prosecutor.
"Independent judiciary has been what has separated us, literally, from the rest of the world."
(Editing by David Adams, Tom Brown and Claudia Parsons)