Conservative Activists Try to Boot Judges Who Blocked Health Care Ballot Question

Tea Party-linked activists are looking for vengeance after the Florida Supreme Court rejected a ballot initiative aimed at sparing the state from a key provision in the federal health care overhaul.

The state's highest court last month ruled against a ballot question asking voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution stating that residents would not have to follow the new federal requirement to buy health insurance. Before the decision, Florida was set to be one of four states putting that question to voters in November.

Conservatives now want Floridians to express their dissatisfaction with the law in a different way -- by voting out the judges who shot down the question.

"The court overstepped its bounds," said Jesse Phillips, founder of conservative activist group Citizen2Citizen. Phillips' group has linked up with the Central Florida Tea Party Council in a campaign to oust two of the five judges who struck down the ballot question. The other three are not on the ballot this year.

The groups are embarking on an uphill battle, which Phillips acknowledged. They have no funding, are not planning to run any ads and are trying to launch a word-of-mouth campaign with just weeks to go before an election dominated by a noisy gubernatorial race and a three-way contest for an open Senate seat.

Phillips also noted that in Florida state history, no judge has ever been voted out.

"It would be historic, but I think it's attainable," Phillips said. "We're not in this to lose."

The judges -- Justice Jorge Labarga and Justice James Perry -- are not running in a traditional election in which they would face an opponent. Instead, they face what is known as a "merit retention" vote. Under Florida law, judges' names are put to the public for an up-or-down vote after they are appointed. If voters approve, the judge stays; if voters do not approve, the judge leaves and the governor fills the vacancy.

Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said judges have to go through a complicated process, which typically entails proving they have opposition, just to campaign for these elections.

He said Perry and Labarga have not taken those steps and so would not engage their critics on the health care decision.

"They do not have active campaigns and so at this point they are not responding to matters like that," Waters said.

In the 5-2 decision last month, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the ballot question summary was "misleading" and should be removed. The courts objected to "subjective" language such as a section that referred to "mandates that don't work."

State officials conceded that point but asked the court on appeal to substitute the text of the entire amendment in place of the summary to avoid any confusion. In its opinion, the court ruled that it did not have the authority to do so because the state Legislature had earlier approved the summary for the ballot.

Phillips, though, claimed the court defied its own precedent. Central Florida Tea Party Council founder Jason Hoyt, in a written statement, called the decision a "power grab."

Though running against the grain, conservative activists could have a friend in Republican Rick Scott, a health care executive who campaigned hard against the federal overhaul, if he wins the race for governor in Florida. Phillips said that if voters defy history and oust the two judges, he would hope Scott -- if elected -- would appoint a replacement sympathetic to their cause.

Phillips said that at the very least, he hopes his "voter education campaign" will help pave the way for a similar ballot question in 2012.