By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ST. PETERSBURG — An assistant dean at the University of Miami School of Law encouraged students to vote to retain Florida judges in next month’s merit retention election, documents reviewed by Florida Watchdog reveal.
William VanderWyden, assistant dean for professional development, urged law students to vote yes on retaining state Supreme Court Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince because it is “what lawyers must do.”
“When you vote this fall, a very important section of the ballot involves judicial merit retention,” wrote VanderWyden in an email sent to all of the law school’s 1,200 students. “I encourage you to study the process and also to vote to retain the friends of justice on the Supreme Court of Florida. This is what lawyers must do.”
Watchdog.org obtained the email after concerns were raised by school and community members that the email could violate portions of the school’s faculty handbook on political advocacy and advertising.
“Neither the University of Miami or the Law School take official position on issues which have been put to the electorate to decide,” said UM School of Law Dean Patricia D. White. “Assistant Dean VanderWyden appropriately forwarded to the law school student body a usefully explanatory and nonpartisan statement by The Florida Bar about how judicial elections work in Florida. He should not have added his own editorial comment. He has sent the student body list serve an apology.”
The school’s 2012-2013 faculty manual states that “the University is itself a non-profit institution and it is not in a position to make gifts or devote its resources to advertising solicited by other similar organizations,” although a spokesman pointed out that VanderWyden is not technically a faculty member and is therefore exempt from the terms of the handbook.
VanderWyden’s email addresses judicial retention, one of the most controversial political issues facing Florida voters this fall. Justices appointed by the governor must undergo a merit retention election every six years, allowing the voters to decide whether they remain on the bench.
Groups such as Restore Justice 2012 and Defend Justice from Politics have contributed vast amounts of campaign advertising in the merit retention fight, educating voters on what is at stake in the election and inspiring editorials and motions of support across the state.
In the email, VanderWyden forwards a message by The Florida Bar that seeks to “inform Florida’s voters” about the merit retention election, but prefaces it with his own commentary on the money being raised to oust the three state Supreme Court justices.
“Among those up for merit retention are three justices of the Supreme Court of Florida. Money from outside the State of Florida is poured into the process to unseat judges in our state and across the Nation,” VanderWyden wrote.
Yaël Ossowski is Florida Bureau Chief for Watchdog.org. Contact at Yael@FloridaWatchdog.org.
[UPDATED 6:41 p.m.]
— Yaël (@YaelOss) September 10, 2012