By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
As the raging national debate over abortion was starting to engulf the Florida Supreme Court last January, now-Chief Justice Carlos Muniz personally led a private courthouse tour for an anti-abortion crusader and his supporters.
The tour taken by John Stemberger and members of his Florida Family Policy Council (FFPC) is attracting much behind-the-scenes attention at the state’s most powerful court.
Lawyers and others have flooded the court’s communication office with public record requests for information about the Jan. 25 tour – photos, emails, calendars, chats – according to a court employee who spoke with Florida Bulldog on condition of anonymity.
“There’s a lot of scrambling going on upstairs,” said the employee, who fears getting fired if identified. “It feels spooky around here right now. Everyone is tense.”
Guided tours of the Greek revival courthouse across Duval Street from the Capitol in Tallahassee help educate the public about the judiciary. So at first glance, all the angst over one particular tour is puzzling.
SITE OF LEGAL ABORTION’S DEMISE?
The problem seems to be who took the tour, who gave it and what kind of message the whole thing sends.
“I was told all the people [on the tour] are members of the anti-abortion group who came to see the place where abortion would soon be abolished in Florida,” the employee said.
Hosting a group of abortion opponents could be interpreted as revealing an anti-abortion bias, according to a legal ethicist.
“It smells bad,” said Jennifer LaVia, a Tallahassee family lawyer and former professor at Florida State University College of Law. She added that it violates no specific rule of judicial conduct.
SOURCE: THE COURT WANTS LEAK PLUGGED
Still, the court’s response to inquiries about the Jan. 25 visit by Stemberger’s group of abortion opponents raises questions. Few photos of the tour were accessible last week, although many were shot and displayed on the FFPC’s Facebook page immediately after the event, according to the court employee.
The group responded to instructions to remove the photos, the source said. However, Stemberger did not remove them from his personal Facebook page.
The court ordered its internal marshal’s office to investigate who inside the court leaked details about the matter to outsiders, prompting them to ask for the records, the court employee said. “I’ve never seen morale so low for staff or the managers so cranky.”
Court spokesman Paul Flemming denied the marshal is investigating a leak.
“I was not aware there was a leak,” he wrote in response to emailed questions. “What was leaked?”
Flemming said Muniz and the other justices host visitors “if they are available and agree. Many tours don’t have a justice participate.”
He said the Stemberger group tour was one of five Muniz took part in during the fiscal year that ended June 30. The others involved visitors from Ward-Highlands Elementary School, Florida State University College of Law, the University of SouthFlorida and Lakeland Christian School.
ABORTION BAN HEADS TO COURT
Also on Jan. 25, Florida House Bill 5, an abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy, landed in the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. Beyond the Capitol the perennial abortion debate was heating up, with polls showing most Floridians support the idea of women controlling their own bodies.
Defying that consensus, the abortion ban passed easily in the Republican-run Legislature. On April 14 Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law, saying, “This will represent the most significant protection of life that we have seen in a generation.”
Any day now, the Supreme Court is expected to publish an order that will stymie an abortion ban challenge by Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice groups. Like flashing neon, an order the court released prematurely Sept. 7 – and recalled hours later – signaled what the justices’ upcoming release will say.
The law’s path forward was predictable on Jan. 25, when Stemberger and his group of abortion opponents had their tour. Anti-abortion activists who’d been trying for 30 years to shift the court rightward struck pay dirt with former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, and DeSantis, both of whom prioritized putting social conservatives on the Florida Supreme Court.
DeSantis has selected four justices out of seven on the court. Justice Charles Canady, the presiding chief justice on Jan. 25, coined the histrionic term “partial-birth abortion” during his previous career as a U.S. congressman.
JUSTICE MUNIZ TAKES THE LECTERN
Florida Bulldog found photos of the Jan. 25 tour on Stemberger’s personal Facebook page that show him smiling among his supporters on the courthouse steps. Muniz, then nearly six months away from starting his current term as chief justice, is pictured addressing the group from a courtroom lectern.
Only the participants know what was said.
In response to questions from Florida Bulldog, Stemberger wrote: “Justice Muniz talked mainly about the role of the courts in the American system of government and then took questions from the audience.”
Still, it isn’t entirely clear that Muniz was only teaching civics, as opposed to violating the rule against discussing issues that are bound for his court, including abortion.
“On the plus side, justices are encouraged to educate the public, to bring people in, to talk to private groups, whoever wants access,” said Miami legal ethics consultant Jan Jacobowitz.
“The flip side is that all judges, other than those on the U.S. Supreme Court, are subject to the canons, which have the strictest prohibition: the appearance of impropriety. They’re not only not supposed to do anything that shows bias, but avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a really tough standard,” she said.
“It could be a pro-choice group. Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is why a justice couldn’t join the group or ‘like’ it on Facebook or be on the letterhead to raise money for it,” Jacobowitz said. “That’s what the question is here: Does this cross the line into the appearance of impropriety beyond the canon that says, welcome the public no matter who they are?”
STEMBERGER’S A MUNIZ FAN
It’s a safe bet that Muniz knows who Stemberger is. Before he joined the court, Muniz and the Orlando attorney ran in the same Republican circles.
Muniz is a former Trump administration official who worked for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. He was a political operative – never a judge – until DeSantis tapped Muniz for the high court on Jan. 8, 2019 in one of his first acts as governor.
Stemberger attended Muniz’s investiture ceremony.
A longtime self-described “marriage and family advocate” and foe of abortion and same-sex marriage, Stemberger is a Supreme Court insider who also attended the investiture of Justice Jamie Grosshans last year.
He was political director of the Republican Party of Florida during President George H.W. Bush’s final campaign in 1993. In 1987 Stemberger founded a think tank called the Institute for Conservative Studies.
Stemberger, whose resume says he’s a member of the staunchly conservative Federalist Society, cheered when DeSantis chose Muniz, along with Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck – both now federal appellate court judges in Atlanta – for the Supreme Court.
“I, along with many other conservative leaders in Florida, praise Governor DeSantis for appointing these outstanding individuals and cementing his legacy for bold leadership early on, which will have a positive effect on our state for decades to come,” he told the right-leaning Florida Daily for a Jan. 22, 2019 report.