When the legendary state Sen. Dempsey Barron bossed the Florida Senate, he would dismiss a silly argument by reciting a ribald limerick ending with the Latin legal dictum "de minimus non curate lex" -- the law does not concern itself with trifles.
Political campaigns, however, do. Nothing is so trivial that it can't be puffed up into a full-blown gaffe -- or, better yet, a criminal violation -- by people who really, really wish to take offense.
Which brings us to the Florida Supreme Court. The seven justices recessed oral arguments on legislative redistricting April 20 so three members could file their retention-election campaign papers just before a noon deadline. And what will come as the biggest shock, to political observers who take their meals in highchairs, is that they used state employees for this scrivener's chore.
Supreme Court justices don't have much political experience -- a good thing -- so they must have thought they had completed all their paperwork. Lucky for them, an adviser spotted the mistake and got it fixed, or else Gov. Rick Scott would have had three vacancies to fill.
State Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, last week urged Scott to sic the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. He cited a law forbidding candidates to "use the services of any state, county, municipal or district officer or employee during working hours."
Attorney Dan Stengle, who advises the three justices' campaigns, replied that their candidacy papers were not "an electioneering communication." Rather, he said, they are legal documents like thousands of others that pass through the court every day.
OK, it shouldn't have happened. A professionally run retention team would have taken care of this much sooner. But, as mentioned earlier, politics is not these guys' day job.
Maybe there is a bit of hubris here. In the rarified, above-politics atmosphere of the judicial branch, judges can confuse "appointed" with "anointed." If there were, in fact, a few minutes of the taxpayers' time spent on filing legally required documents -- well, it's not like staffers were making fund-raising calls on state phones or running campaign leaflets through the clerk's postage meter.
The late Lt. Gov. Tom Adams was almost impeached for using a couple of state workers as field hands at his Gadsden County farm. That was an extreme example, but it's not unusual for coworkers to be friends and do small favors, even when one outranks the other by six or 10 pay grades.
Spotting abuse of public employees for personal or political chores is like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography. You can't legally define it, but you know it when you see it. We all know the difference between making a pizza run when everybody works late, or taking a message from the boss's spouse -- which is not in your job description -- and being pressured to run errands and babysit for someone who just happens to have the power to fire you.
There has been no allegation of threats, intimidation or chronic abuse of Supreme Court employees. At worst, the paperwork recess ran too long and some litigants in the redistricting case probably paid $500 an hour to lawyers who cooled their tasseled loafers in the rotunda. While the justices can't ethically reimburse parties in the redistricting case for the cumulative billable hours, maybe they could make a token equivalent contribution to a scholarship fund for needy law students -- including the cost of a half-hour's salary for however many employees ran and fetched for them.
But a criminal investigation? What's Latin for "Oh, be serious?"
Bill Cotterell, retired senior writer for the Tallahassee Democrat, has covered Florida government and politics since 1969.
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