Just before sunset on a recent evening, scores of lawyers in dark suits and polished loafers streamed into the swanky 18th-floor ballroom of a downtown high-rise here. They sipped chardonnay and nursed Heinekens, munched on cheese cubes and made small talk. The invitation to the event had asked for a “suggested contribution” of $500 to each of three candidates, who were now mingling sheepishly among the crowd. They were no ordinary politicians. In fact, they weren’t politicians at all, but rather Florida Supreme Court justices. Each has been in office since the 1990s, each retained by voters overwhelmingly in previous elections, and each now reluctantly campaigning — for the first time. While deep-pocketed super PACs and ultra-wealthy donors have attracted plenty of attention in the presidential contest this year, they are also making waves further down the political food chain. The mere possibility that a rich benefactor or interest group with endless amounts of money could swoop in, write massive checks and remake an entire court for ideological reasons has prompted judges here in Florida and elsewhere to prepare for battles they never expected to fight.
The three justices sipping water and shaking hands in the ballroom decided months ago that they needed to campaign early and hard. They saw two of their colleagues targeted in 2010 after the court refused to allow a ballot measure opposing a key provision in President Obama’s health-care plan. They knew the organizers of that effort, angry about what they call “judicial activism,” had promised to step up their campaign and had formed a political organization that by law can raise unlimited money. The judges were less than excited about having to ask people for money.
… Like judges elsewhere, those in Florida remain rattled by what happened two years ago in Iowa, where three state Supreme Court justices who had upheld a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage lost their jobs after a vitriolic million-dollar campaign to unseat them — money coming almost entirely from outside the state. In the preceding decade, not a single dollar had reportedly been spent on Iowa’s high court elections. Similar but lower-profile efforts have taken place in Alaska, Colorado and Illinois.