Anti-retention PACs off to a slow start July 1, 2001 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Anti-retention PACs off to a slow start Senior Editor What was promised to be a well-financed effort by two groups to oppose one or both of the Florida Supreme Court justices up for merit retention in 2002 may have fizzled before it started, according to state records. Justice Anstead In the emotional wake of last year’s presidential vote in Florida, the groups announced plans to raise money for anti-retention campaigns. One group, the Committee to Take Back Our Judiciary, sent out a highly publicized fund-raising letter to 350,000 people. That group announced plans to oppose both Chief Justice Charles Wells and Justice Harry Lee Anstead, who is set to become chief justice next June. (The group also announced it would oppose Justice Leander Shaw, but Shaw faces mandatory retirement because of his age and will not be on the ballot.) A second group, called Balance to the Bench, announced plans to quickly raise $1 million to oppose Anstead.Reality has fallen far short of plans. The chair of the Committee to Take Back Our Judiciary has quit, and that campaign may have run afoul of state fund-raising laws, in addition to raising little money. And according to state records, Balance to the Bench hasn’t even filed papers that would allow it to begin accepting contributions, much less reported raising any funds.The Take Back group sent out a fund-raising letter the week before Christmas asking for contributions between $15 and $1,000 to “beat these liberals and have them removed from the court,” referring to Shaw, Anstead, and Wells. The letter was financed by a $150,000 in-kind “loan” from Creative Marketing, a Virginia-based direct mail firm.But under Florida law, political action committees that become involved with specific candidates may not accept contributions over $500, either in-kind or cash, according to Kristi Bronson, an attorney with the Division of Elections.“The only time it’s not $500 is if you are a political committee that supports or opposes issues only,” she said. If a committee supports both issues and candidates, then the $500 limit still applies.The committee’s finances aren’t in much better shape. It received a total, not counting the loan, of $69,013.20. Of that, $50,000 has gone to repay Creative Marketing, and another $4,000 was refunded, in eight $500 checks, to those who sent in $1,000 contributions. Another $326 went to miscellaneous expenses.All that means that after its first mailing, the Committee to Take Back Our Judiciary, according to its March 31 report, had less than $15,000 on hand not enough to do another mailing and still an outstanding $100,000 loan.That’s still better than Balance to the Bench, which was quoted late last year as having plans to raise $1 million within three months. According to the state, that organization has yet to register as a political action committee, much less raise any money.Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty was listed in papers as the head of the Committee to Take Back Our Judiciary, but she now says that was only an honorary position. She also said she was not involved in drawing up the initial fund-raising letter, which had several factual errors, or in setting up the organizations.McCarty said she has relinquished her position with the group.“I don’t plan to be active. I am resigning from the organization,” she said. “I am chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party and running for reelection, and I don’t have any plans to undertake a statewide initiative.”But she predicted there would be some effort related to the justices’ retention races, noting, “I am sure the effort to educate people on who they are voting for will continue.”In its mailing, the Committee to Take Back Our Judiciary said it was out to “strike a blow for conservative principles” by seeking to defeat Wells, Anstead, and Shaw. It expressed anger at a unanimous Florida Supreme Court ruling that extended vote total reporting deadlines and allowed recounts sought by Democrat Al Gore. The mailing did not mention a second, later 4-3 decision, with Shaw and Wells dissenting, that allowed statewide recounts, and included a sharply worded opinion from Wells.Balance to the Bench, according to news reports, focused only on Anstead, with announced plans to raise $1 million in three months.Officials from that group could not be reached for comment.