Jesse Phillips: Judges, unions and the 'appearance of evil'


Florida Supreme Court

File photo
Published: Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 8:37 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 6, 2012 at 8:37 a.m.

There is a scriptural adage that says that we should avoid “all appearance of evil.” Growing up, I took this to mean that in order to maintain our integrity and good standing, we should avoid any association or activity that could reasonably appear to be evil whether or not it actually was evil.

For the record, the title of this piece does not suggest that judges or unions are evil. My suggestion is simply that they may be entangled in a conflict of interest that has a very questionable appearance. Let me explain.

In 2011, Florida’s legislature passed a law requiring state employees to contribute three-percent of their salary into their pensions, saving taxpayers $1 billion per year. The unions sued to get this money back. On September 7th the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments. They are currently deliberating whether they should overturn the law and award that billion dollars back to the state employees.

Under normal circumstances this is a fiscally important case; but in this election year it’s nuclear.

The Justices are running for retention. Until recently their primary supporters were members of the legal community. For the past two years there has been no recognized support for the Justices outside of the legal community. We have learned, however, that they suddenly have a new ally, public sector unions.

Recently, the First Fraternal Order of Police and the Florida Professional Fire Fighters associations announced their support of Justices Pariente, Quince and Lewis. Although they’ve adopted anti-political rhetoric, their motive is transparent enough.

Why would the leadership of the police and fire unions take the unprecedented step of backing three Supreme Court Justices? Do they have anything to gain by joining their campaigns? I can’t think of anything they’d gain by backing these three Justices except their share of one billion dollars.

Think about it: Justices Pariente, Quince and Lewis are deciding whether to direct $1 billion to public employees and unions, some of which are directly supporting their campaigns! Is this evil? That's for you to decide. Does it have the “appearance of evil”? Yes.

I’m sure the Justices insist they will make their billion-dollar decision with absolute objectivity and that the unions’ vital role in their re-election will not cross their minds even once. I’m sure the unions will say that they are just looking out for the poor Justices whose $1 million campaign is being threatened by an evil youth pastor on Facebook.

Behind all of the rhetoric is a nagging question: is it ethical for a judge to make a ruling in a case when the primary financial beneficiary is also a known supporter of his re-election?

From the unions' perspective, is it ethical to suddenly join the campaign of a judge who is about to decide whether you will receive a share of a $1 billion payout?

I’ve been accused of compromising the Court’s independence. Ironic, isn’t it?

If the Court is to maintain its integrity and avoid the appearance of evil, Justices Pariente, Quince and Lewis should recuse themselves from this decision. That’s the only way they can avoid the charge of abusing their positions and gaining union support by the potential of a favorable ruling.

Do the right thing, Justices Pariente, Quince and Lewis. Recuse yourself. At the very least, issue a ruling on this case before the election.

web

Jesse Phillips

President

Restore Justice, Inc.

Tallahassee

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