When the dictator of a nation like, let's say Syria or Cuba, directs the state police to harass or intimidate judges, no one is surprised. We expect regimes with little respect for the rule of law to conduct themselves in that manner. But when the elected governor of a democratic state, let's say Florida, directs the state police to investigate Supreme Court justices for baseless and frivolous charges, it's worth a double take.
That is precisely what Florida Gov. Rick Scott did when he directed the state police to investigate three sitting Supreme Court justices because state employees notarized the justices' financial disclosure forms. Think about it: Scott, at the behest of a state legislator, sought to have the justices investigated and prosecuted criminally for these ridiculously inconsequential acts. It is no coincidence that the justices also happen to have issued court opinions that were contrary to the governor's and the complaining legislator's political agenda.
The state police, after an extensive investigation, reported that there was "no evidence indicating an abuse of either position or public resources." The local state attorney, who also was required to review the matter, found that "no law was violated." The report pointed out that the allegation was about "a trifle." What's more, the governor picked only on the three justices whose opinions he does not like and ignored the fact that the four other justices, whose opinions he apparently likes, had their papers notarized in the same way.
As further proof of his malicious motive, after the justices were fully exonerated, Gov. Scott issued a strongly worded statement revealing his dissatisfaction with the finding that there had been no wrongdoing.
Gov. Scott engaged in a monumental waste of law enforcement resources to advance his own political goals. These are resources that would have been better spent protecting us from criminals. It is astonishing that a sitting governor would attempt to use state police to intimidate justices of the state's highest court. That is conduct you expect to see in a totalitarian regime. But in Florida?
Even though by any definition Florida's high court is centrist with more Republican appointments than Democratic, the governor and some legislators seem to want to rid themselves and our state of a fair and impartial judiciary that acts as a check on their unconstitutional ambitions.
Gov. Scott isn't the first Tallahassee politician to want to free himself from constitutional constraints. In my decade in the legislature, I fought multiple efforts by my colleagues (and governors) to intimidate, limit and weaken the courts. Each time, however, a coalition of right-thinking legislators – Democrats and Republicans – beat back these wrongheaded measures.
There will be more unseemly efforts to attack the judiciary by Gov. Scott and others this campaign season. It is no coincidence that the three justices singled out are up for merit retention on the November ballot. Floridians can expect well-funded and powerful out-of-state special interests to be on the attack. But this is not Syria or Cuba, and hopefully, Floridians will see these misguided efforts for what they are and reject them outright.
Dan Gelber was a State Senator and former House Democratic Leader from Miami.