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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Targeted For Removal

Since statehood in 1845, eighty-five justices have served on the Florida Supreme Court. Just three have been women – and all three have been targeted for removal. This is the case again in the 2012 election.

To put it in context, let’s look at how members of the state’s highest court get there. For most of Florida’s history, they simply won statewide elections, campaigning like any other politician. Too often the result was legal bribery, as those who wanted favorable court decisions contributed to judicial campaigns expecting that they could buy justice.

After a series of scandals, the League of Women Voters undertook to create a new system. Tampa’s Helen Gordon Davis was one of the Leaguers who drafted a constitutional amendment that changed the nature of the judiciary. When voters adopted it in 1976, justices were able to make decisions without keeping a constant eye on reelection money.

The new system, called merit retention, was a compromise between those who wanted to continue elections and those who wanted to emulate the US Constitution. The nation’s founding fathers provided that presidents appoint federal judges, subject only to confirmation by the US Senate. This never has changed, and federal judges are free to decide cases according to the law, without worrying about reelection and shifting political trends.

Although a compromise, Florida’s merit retention system was much better than no reform. Under it, a judicial nominating commission proposes qualified applicants to the governor, who must appoint from that list. Voters confirm in the first election after the appointment, and then every six years, we again reply to question: “Shall Justice John Doe be retained on the Florida Supreme Court?”

* * *

Justice Rosemary Barkett was the first woman on the court and the first targeted for removal. Born to Syrian parents in Mexico, she came to Miami as a child and entered a Catholic convent at age seventeen. After eight years as a nun, she enrolled in the law school of the University of Florida. Fellow students so respected her that she was the first woman voted as the outstanding senior.

After a decade of private practice, she won election as a circuit judge in 1979, and in 1985, Democratic Governor Bob Graham appointed her to the Florida Supreme Court. Retained in 1986 without controversy, she served successfully and won significant honors from her colleagues -- but without any reasonable cause, conservatives targeted her for removal under merit retention in 1992.

Her fellow judges supported her, but Justice Barkett was forced to leave the solemnity of the court and spend the election year glad-handing at political rallies. Feminists worked hard to ensure that the first woman on the court remained there, and she won 61% of the vote. President Bill Clinton also won that year, and in 1994, he appointed her to the federal court based in Atlanta, where she still serves.

Meanwhile, Tampa’s Bob Martinez, a Republican, won the 1986 gubernatorial election; no woman joined the highest court during his four-year tenure. Democrat Lawton Chiles displaced him in 1990, and Chiles is the reason that two other women are on the court today.

After Republican Jeb Bush won in 1998, no additional women have been appointed – not under the eight years of Bush, four years of Charlie Crist, nor during the first years of Rick Scott. Indeed, the fact is that no Republican governor ever has initiated the appointment of any woman to the state’s highest court.

* * *

Chiles’ first appointee was Barbara Pariente of West Palm Beach. She was educated at prestigious schools – Boston University and George Washington University – and became a circuit judge in 1993. Chiles elevated her to the highest court in 1997, where she has served with distinction for most of two decades.

Peggy Quince was Chiles’ second female appointee. She had roots in Tampa, but because of racial discrimination, was educated in Washington, DC. She graduated from Howard University, the nation’s first college for blacks, and earned her law degree from Catholic University. After practicing in Virginia, she returned home, settling in Bradenton in 1978.

Quince rose to the Second District Court of Appeals in 1993, and Governor Chiles appointed her to the Supreme Court prior to his sudden death in December 1998. Incoming Governor Jeb Bush signed off on it, and she became the first African-American woman on the court. Like Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince has been regularly retained and is much respected by her colleagues.

I’m sorry to be so blunt, but the so-called conservatives who would displace them (and fellow Justice Fred Lewis) in 2012 are nothing but political hacks eager to give a Republican governor a chance to make partisan appointments. Their campaign against the intention of merit retention is especially egregious because the Republican Party of Florida-- which voted to promote the negative advertising -- already controls the entire executive branch and has a super-majority in the legislature. To also politicize the judicial branch is little short of attempting a fascist coup.

* * *

Florida’s current situation emulates the nation’s first case of targeting a female justice for defeat. California has not always been the Democratic place that it is now, and an earlier version of the modern Tea Party attempted to recall Rose Bird after her 1977 appointment to that state’s highest court.

She survived the first campaigns against her, but in 1986 – while former California Governor Ronald Reagan was president – conservatives managed to oust Bird. In a highly political campaign that featured bumper stickers reading “Bye-Bye Birdie,” they called her a “communist” who was “soft on crime,” despite a record very similar to male justices.

So how does Florida compare with other states? I learned some things on that while writing a chapter about state judiciaries for my Women in American Politics: History and Milestones, published by Congressional Quarterly Press.

The very first woman elected to a state Supreme Court was in 1922. Florence Allen was a young lawyer who joined her mother in the long campaign for women’s right to vote, and after that amendment was added to the US Constitution in 1920, feminists worked to elect Allen to the Ohio Supreme Court. Reelected by a bigger margin, President Franklin Roosevelt chose her as the first woman on a federal appellate court in 1934.

A long dry spell followed Allen’s victory, though, as the Great Depression and World War II displaced the issue of women’s equality. Her 1922 precedent was not repeated until 1960, when Lorna Lockwood won election to the Arizona Supreme Court. (Arizona also was the home of Sandra Day O’Connor, who became the first woman on the US Supreme Court in 1981.)

The South can claim the first appointed woman: in 1962, Susie Marshall Sharp joined the North Carolina Supreme Court, named by Governor Terry Sanford. He was a Democrat -- as were most of the pioneering governors who took the risk of appointing the first women. In the two decades that followed the 1962 precedent, nineteen states saw their first woman appointed to their highest court. Just two of those nineteen appointments, however, were by Republican governors (in Kansas and New Jersey). I’m sorry, my Republican friends, but the facts are the facts.

Florida ranks exactly at the mid-point of the chronology of women on state Supreme Courts, as Rosemary Barkett was the 25th among the fifty states. It took eighty years for all of the states to follow Ohio’s 1922 precedent, with Wyoming finally completing the list in 2002.

But progress is not necessarily permanent, and three states – Idaho, Iowa, and Indiana – once had women on their courts, but have none now. Fourteen states have only one woman; they range alphabetically from Alaska to Wyoming, but include all regions of the country.

On the positive side, four states – California, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin – currently have a slight majority of women on their highest court, and fifteen of the fifty states have women as chief justices. Women are the majority of the population, though, and fifteen is far from fifty.

We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. Failure to retain Justices Pariente and Quince would be a big step backwards – and I only hope that putting women back in their place is not what Republicans intend when they say they want to take back the country.

Remember, too, that Barack Obama is the only president who used more than one opportunity to add women to the US Supreme Court. Future historians will deem his nominations of Sonia Sotomayer and Elena Kagan as a huge leap forward in judicial history, and it would be wrong to fail to reward him for his courage.

Please remember also that two of nine is far from equality, and that -- in the context of the historical record -- the most effective way to bring these statistics closer to democratic is to vote Democratic.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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