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The Pro Bono Pros: And How You Can Become One

Featured Article

Photo of people with hand in the center.

Dressed in the gray Banana Republic suit she’d originally picked out for her first day at the firm, Audrey Pumariega, 27, stood to address the judge.

The pearls her aunt had given her as a graduation gift felt comforting. She’d put them on that morning, imagining they would make her look more lawyerly.

Just months into the practice of law, Pumariega was in court on a client’s behalf for the first time.

In order to prepare her to present the motion to dismiss in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, two of the partners in her firm, Ann St. Peter-Griffith and Marcos Daniel Jiménez, had run Pumariega through a mock oral argument.

Now, apart from the judge, opposing counsel, the court reporter, and a clerk, St. Peter-Griffith was the only other person in the room with her. Her clients weren’t there. Still, Pumariega felt as though she was standing before the whole congregation of the Baptist church she was representing free of charge.

“I was thinking of the clients, and how important the outcome of the hearing would be to them, throughout the hearing,” Pumariega said, reflecting on the hotly contested dispute with one of the church’s members.

“You come straight out of law school, and you’re just trying to figure out what it even means to be a lawyer. When you get thrown into the lead role in a pro bono matter, it’s sort of like a crash course. It forces you to quickly learn not only the substantive issues, but also the procedure. That first case was a great learning experience. It was my first opportunity to manage a case, argue a dispositive motion in court, and call the shots as to what strategy to take.”

Now in her seventh year of practice, Pumariega has volunteered her services on numerous cases through the pro bono program of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Lawyers for Children America, among other organizations.

“I think working on pro bono generally, and particularly with Lawyers for Children America, you get opportunities as a young lawyer that you otherwise wouldn’t,” Pumariega said. “Almost all of my ‘firsts’ were in pro bono matters: first deposition, first dispositive hearing, first settlement negotiation.”

Through Lawyers for Children America, which supports pro bono lawyers in representing and mentoring Miami-Dade teens in foster care, Pumariega successfully contested the wrongful termination of Extended Foster Care benefits for a young man who was aging out of care, protecting his right to due process, and preventing him from becoming homeless. She also prevented the commitment of an abused, pregnant teenager to a locked psychiatric facility, representing her at an evidentiary hearing.

“It was kind of an interesting feeling because it felt great to win for this young girl, but it also was a sobering experience in that I thought about how many children out there don’t have lawyers to represent them and wouldn’t have been able to oppose that motion the way we did,” said Pumariega, a trial attorney at McDermott Will & Emery in Miami.

Why Do They Do It?
There is no single reason for a lawyer to volunteer his or her services. Rather, the reasons are infinite and depend on the lawyer. Pumariega cites a couple of hers.

“First of all, it’s our ethical obligation to give back and represent people who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice,” she said. “It also gives you an opportunity to hone your hands-on litigation skills as a young lawyer, especially at a big firm. If you’re representing a Fortune 500 company in an important hearing or at trial, the client wants the bigwig partner to be the one presenting to the judge. Pro bono gives you an opportunity to be able to do some of those things while you’re still a junior lawyer.”

Carrie Ann Wozniak, chair of The Florida Bar Appellate Practice Section’s pro bono committee, said pro bono can be vital to the career development of appellate attorneys. The section has a pro bono program for its members that matches newer attorneys with experienced mentors. It also provides its members access to a library of resources the section originally developed for continuing legal education programs it offers legal aid attorneys around the state. Most of the cases are in family law, but the section also receives requests for help in landlord-tenant, foreclosure, administrative law, and other noncriminal areas.

“If you’re a very young associate, a lot of times you are just researching one issue for an appeal. You’re not actually getting to draft the whole brief, and you are definitely not getting to do oral argument, because there may be millions of dollars at stake,” Wozniak said. “And to get board certified in appellate practice you have to have 25 appeals where you have been the primary attorney and five oral arguments. So a lot of people have issues satisfying these requirements, especially with getting the five oral arguments, and doing pro bono work is a great way to get the oral arguments.”

Mentors benefit because they get pro bono credit for helping with the case without having to handle some of the most time-consuming aspects, Wozniak said.

But that’s just one advantage for those section members with more experience.

Veteran Orlando appellate attorney Tom Young often works on guardian ad litem cases pro bono. He said he does it out of a genuine love of practicing law, for the chance to advocate for children, and because it enables him to use some of his unique experience. One of his recent cases had all of those positives, and even helped influence Florida law (see sidebar page 11).

“I like to be involved from the policy standpoint,” Young said. “So it’s maybe a selfish thing, but it’s the intellectual satisfaction that comes with it.”

Experience that counts toward board certification is an example of what is sometimes called the “secondary gain” that accrues to pro bono attorneys. Secondary gain could also come from the opportunity to develop new lines of business or greater esteem in the eyes of peers, partners, and judges.

“I think most juvenile court judges would be thrilled to have pro bono lawyers contact them and ask if they can help represent a foster child,” said Carolyn Salisbury, director of Lawyers for Children America’s Miami office. “Every day juvenile court judges have to make these most difficult rulings about children over whom they have jurisdiction, but these children have no lawyers to advocate for them.”

One judge who is filled with appreciation whenever a pro bono attorney steps into the enormous justice gap she sees daily in her courtroom is Judge Catherine Peek McEwen of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Middle District of Florida.

McEwen said she only wishes lawyers could sit in her seat for a day during a consumer docket.

“I so desperately want to climb down and get on the other side of the bench and help people,” McEwen said. “It breaks my heart that because they don’t have the means or the knowledge, they will lose. They will lose something that is important to them. For me, it’s like watching a serial TV show, but I’m going to be doing it several hours all together in an afternoon.

“If they could take my seat and watch it, they would be so just struck by the fact that there is such a need. And I think they would be energized to go out and try to do something, because it’s heartbreaking.”

And unlike other desperate needs in the community, the need for legal assistance can only be met by one category of people, said Jamie Billotte Moses of Holland & Knight in Orlando, immediate past president of the Orange County Bar Association.

“Anybody can build a home. Anybody can make a meal. Almost anybody can write a check. But only lawyers can provide legal services,” Moses said.

The Flip Side of Paradise
Florida is the nation’s fourth largest economy.1 T he sunshine that gives the state its nickname helps make it one of the world’s top travel destinations and fuels a $100 billion agriculture industry.2

To many, Florida is paradise. But paradise has a flip-side.

With tourism and agriculture being the state’s primary economic drivers, more than 60 percent of the Florida job openings pay less than $17 an hour, the living wage for a single adult.3 N ot surprisingly, Florida also has the nation’s fifth highest rate of uninsured and one million children living in poverty.4 T he state’s top industries are also a draw for human trafficking, contributing to Florida’s third-place rank behind California and Texas in the number of victims.5 L ow-income seniors, disabled veterans, victims of domestic violence, and immigrants, including children in the United States without a parent, are also among the vulnerable populations whose circumstances give rise to a wide range of civil legal problems.6

In addition, as with Pumariega’s clients, many of the more than 22,000 Florida children in foster care7 e ncounter legal hurdles that could seriously affect their futures, as do a number of the 20,000 disabled Floridians on a waiting list to receive a Medicaid waiver that enables them to receive community- and home-based services.8

Based on U.S. Census data and studies by the federally funded Legal Services Corporation and others, The Florida Bar Foundation estimates that 90 percent of the legal needs of low-income Floridians go unmet. The Foundation has commissioned a legal needs study in order to obtain more detailed data, the results of which will be out later this year.

In the meantime, looking at just one issue — bankruptcy — in the year ending September 30, 2016, the Middle District of Florida ranked second nationally in the overall number of pro se filings per judge with 525.8, and first in the number of pro se Ch. 13 filings with 240.5.9

McEwen said Florida has a special mortgage modification mediation program under Ch. 13 that is highly successful at keeping people in their homes, including elderly people on fixed incomes at risk of losing the homes in which they raised their families.

“It’s almost like saving someone’s life in a way,” McEwen said. “The life as they knew it, you bring it back.”

Florida lawyers give generously to legal aid, contributing $5.4 million in the year ended June 30, 2016.10 But the dollars will never be enough, especially now. Revenue from interest on lawyers’ trust accounts, once the primary funding mechanism for legal aid in Florida and around the country, has been decimated in the last decade. Near-zero interest rates have essentially turned Florida’s Interest on Trust Accounts (IOTA) tap from an annual $43 million gush to a $5.5 million drip.11

At the same time, Congress has kept a tight lid on funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which several years ago surpassed the IOTA funding administered by The Florida Bar Foundation as Florida’s primary source of funding for legal aid.

Pro bono is one way to help make up for the lost dollars.

But as The Florida Bar has grown, exceeding 100,000 members for the first time in 2015,12 pro bono hours have fallen slightly each of the last two years. After rising steadily each year since 2006, when Florida lawyers reported to The Florida Bar they had put in 1.4 million volunteer hours, the numbers have gone from a high of 1.9 million hours in 2013-14 to 1.65 million hours in 2015-16.13 One thing that has not diminished during that time is the need.

“There are so many folks out there who are struggling and have great difficulties in accessing the legal system, in navigating the legal system, and are greatly disadvantaged in terms of being able to obtain justice in our courts,” said Florida Bar President-elect Michael Higer, a partner with Berger Singerman in Miami. “And we are the guardians of that legal system.”

The Baskin-Robbins of Law
“Pro bono is like Baskin-Robbins,” said McEwen, referring to the ice cream chain long known for variety. “that, I mean that it comes in all sizes and all flavors to suit what your taste is. If you are a transactional attorney, there is transactional work you can do. There’s the big, big, big multiple scoops like a banana split down to the kiddie cone, and all the flavors in between. You may want to do the chocolate that you’ve never ventured into, but if you want to do the safe thing and do the vanilla for a while that’s okay, too.”

Gisela Rodriguez’s first pro bono case was a great, big banana split with a cherry on top. Through the Legal Aid Foundation of Tallahassee’s Thunderdome program, Rodriguez helped reunite a mother with her developmentally disabled son after a six-year custody dispute with a relative. The case was anything but cut-and-dried. After engaging a pro bono psychologist to conduct a parental evaluation the court required, and then helping her client jump through dozens of hoops, Rodriguez had the pleasure of telling Kimberly Conyers that her long wait was over. Her son Jacquez was finally coming home.

The experience got her hooked on pro bono.

“This is what I wish I could do all day long,” Rodriguez said. “If I could, that’s what I would do because I feel so strongly and am so passionate about helping others with things that they can’t really do by themselves.”

Plantation attorney Elias Leonard Dsouza takes bankruptcy cases referred by the Dade Legal Aid Put Something Back Program, as well as the Legal Aid Service of Broward County. His firm also has a commitment to volunteer on behalf of potential clients who are single mothers, long-term unemployed, or elderly persons whose sole income is Social Security.

“I’m not sure how much difference it makes in the lives of the pro bono clients I serve. But it make a tremendous difference in my life, just the ability to help one more person, and try to make a difference in that one person’s life,” Dsouza said.

Some lawyers might be comfortable getting up close and personal with a pro bono client in a family law or bankruptcy case, while others might have chosen their specialties in part because they are more comfortable sticking to business. The good news is that opportunities abound either way.

The Real Property, Probate & Trust Law (RPPTL) Section of The Florida Bar is working on a project that will enable transactional and probate attorneys statewide to help solve a persistent problem — the lack of proper title records among low-income residents.

Often, after a property owner’s death, heirs can’t afford to probate the property, or a do-it-yourself deed results in an invalid title transfer. Problems often arise after disasters like hurricanes, when only those with title are eligible for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources.

Larry Miller, a member of the RPPTL Section’s executive council, said the plan is for section members to serve as trainers to help other lawyers learn how to remedy bad title and for those trained to address title problems, including necessary legal proceedings.

“The trainers are expected, along with the legal aid offices, to teach attorneys in each of the circuits the methodology, the procedures, the funding that will be used to address title issues when they come up,” Miller said.

Called “No Place Like Home” after a regional program begun by Bay Area Legal Services (BALS) in Tampa that serves as the model, the project will work in cooperation with legal aid offices around the state.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for the section and its members to assist the public in getting them access to the legal system and relief from a really difficult problem,” Miller said. “There is nothing unique about that in my mind. It’s what we should be doing. And this provides a very direct way to do it.”

Another BALS project, the Judge Don Castor Community Law Center, matches transactional attorneys with nonprofit organizations for assistance with business law matters. Project Director Susan Sandler said, since 1993, the project has offered pro bono opportunities for lawyers with backgrounds in corporate, contract, tax, employment, and intellectual property law, as well as risk management and other areas.

“There were a number of business law practitioners who didn’t feel comfortable working outside their area of expertise, and they fell in love with the idea of volunteering in the transactional business law area,” she said.

Sandler said legal aid and pro bono programs around the state will often provide mentoring and guidance to enable volunteer lawyers to help nonprofits in need.

In addition, The Florida Bar Business Law Section periodically hosts nonprofit clinics in various cities around Florida at which transactional attorneys can offer advice that smaller charities might not otherwise be able to afford. During Pro Bono Week last October, the section offered Jacksonville-area nonprofits a free one-hour consultation and a “legal check-up.”

“Get involved in any way you can, wherever you feel comfortable,” Sandler said.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job
Doing pro bono doesn’t require signing your life away. Nor does it require knowledge that any lawyer in any practice area can’t acquire through free seminars or volunteer mentors. Pro bono programs and initiatives throughout Florida provide time-limited opportunities and ample training.

The Bankruptcy Bar Association of the Southern District of Florida, for example, needs lawyers to staff monthly pro se clinics in Miami, Broward, Palm Beach, and Martin counties and to make Credit Abuse Resistance Education presentations at local high schools.

For the last five years, the Legal Aid Service of Collier County has offered an annual “Wills for Heroes” program through which pro bono lawyers help veterans, reservists, first responders, and other emergency and law enforcement personnel with basic estate planning documents.

Once a month, the Seminole County Bar Association Legal Aid Society offers a legal advice clinic for veterans at the Seminole County Public Library, where pro bono attorneys offer assistance with family and housing law.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Tallahassee holds monthly “Mobile Law for All” clinics, which send volunteers to community centers in high-poverty neighborhoods to provide free 30-minute consults in civil legal matters such as employment, family, landlord-tenant, and consumer law.

And these are just a handful of examples.

Volunteers are needed in virtually every Florida county to help legal aid and pro bono programs with client intake, to help pro se litigants fill out family law forms at the courthouse, to help domestic-violence victims complete petition-for-injunction forms, and to serve as mentors to less experienced pro bono attorneys. Law school clinics often call upon pro bono attorneys specialized in administrative, juvenile, and health-care law, veterans’ issues, and other areas.

Higer, who specializes in complex commercial litigation, has worked on death penalty cases, landlord-tenant and debt collection issues, and termination of parental rights, among other pro bono matters.

To him, a lack of knowledge is not a valid reason for a lawyer to decline pro bono work.

“I guarantee you that you know a lot more, and you are able to learn a lot more about landlord-tenant or other matters than that person knows. It’s not even close,” Higer said.

“Secondly, so often with a legal clinic, whether it’s small claims clinics or others that I’ve been involved with over the years, they are happy to train the lawyer in the particular areas in which they need a lawyer’s assistance. And it usually takes less than 30 minutes or 45 minutes to give that lawyer the basic tools he or she will need in order to more than adequately represent the indigent client.”

In addition, has an online library of materials, including webinars and videos, on commonly occurring substantive areas, including children’s rights and dependency, consumer law, domestic violence, and education and schools.

When it comes to offering pro bono assistance to nonprofits in Florida, the National Network of Nonprofit Business Law Pro Bono Providers offers specially designed webinars that address areas of federal law common to most nonprofit charities. The BALS Judge Don Castor Community Law Center is the network’s Florida contact.

Local legal aid and pro bono programs, as well as bankruptcy and other courts, offer a host of online resources, webinars, and continuing legal education programs to prepare lawyers to take pro bono cases. Bankruptcy training modules on the National Consumer Law Center website,, and Bankruptcy Basics videos at are excellent starting points for pro bono attorneys as well as clients.

Some of the training programs available for pro bono attorneys count for continuing legal education (CLE) credit, and sometimes pro bono work itself can count for CLE. Judge Laurel Isicoff of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida said attorneys who take pro bono cases, or mentor a nonbankruptcy attorney who is working on a pro bono case, can, during a three-year reporting cycle, earn up to three of 12 bankruptcy continuing legal education credits required locally by the bankruptcy court to be admitted to practice in that court.

She adds that judges will often go out of their way to accommodate pro bono attorneys.

“Many of us will first call matters in which an attorney is representing a party pro bono,” Isicoff said. “Also, most trustees have agreed to call pro bono cases first on their very lengthy first meetings of creditors.”

“Beam Me Up, Scotty”
Pro bono service doesn’t have to involve going to court or even to the local legal aid office. In fact, the future of pro bono might look more like Star Trek than To Kill a Mockingbird.

In the fall 2015, The Florida Bar Foundation hosted a Legal Aid Summit in Orlando facilitated by Margaret Hagan, a fellow at Stanford Law’s Center on the Legal Profession and a lecturer at the Stanford Institute of Design.

At the summit, each of more than two dozen small groups worked on a solution to one of several challenge questions, including: “How do we serve our communities in more client-centered and strategic ways?”

Hagan coached the groups through a series of design stages that included brainstorming, prototyping, testing, pitching, and debriefing. After teams in each of five challenge areas picked the leading project from their category, the finalists then pitched their ideas to a panel of experts.

A version of the winning project is now being implemented at BALS under the name “iLawyer.”

iLawyer connects low-income residents of East Tampa with lawyers through a little technology and the help of law student interns from the Stetson University College of Law. Clients can attend a monthly after-hours walk-in clinic at the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, Inc., where students triage their legal issues and upload important legal documents to a file at BALS. Clients then connect with pro bono lawyers via Skype to receive legal advice and brief services. This enables clients to avoid taking time off from work or school to visit the BALS office during business hours and enables the volunteer attorneys to help from their own offices, or even from home.

While there’s no teleporting involved, it’s the next best thing. And if follow-up is needed, BALS can schedule an old-fashioned appointment.

“This is the kind of forward thinking we need to see more of,” said Florida Bar President William J. Schifino, Jr. “Doing things the same way we have for the last 50 or 100 years is not going to work. Not if we are going to really make an impact on access to justice.”

The Florida Bar Foundation has taken other steps to modernize pro bono, recently launching a pilot project in Miami-Dade for an interactive pro bono website involving virtually all of the county’s pro bono programs for civil legal aid. The Foundation eventually hopes to take statewide.

Previously, attorneys could visit to find local organizations that provide pro bono opportunities in their selected area of the law and with selected populations. Now,, which can also be accessed through, serves as a marketing tool for specific pro bono cases.

It is designed to allow any organization that wants to advertise pro bono opportunities — whether a law school, law firm, or legal aid organization — to display cases. Developed by Wiedza Creations, LLC, a company based within the University of Central Florida’s Business Incubation Program, puts pro bono attorneys in the driver’s seat, giving them a user-friendly way to filter and search for cases that suit their interests.

The Foundation also has hired Anais Taboas, formerly of Florida Rural Legal Services, as its South Florida pro bono program officer to develop and expand pro bono initiatives and collaborations from the Florida Keys to the Palm Beaches. Housed in donated space in the Miami office of Akerman LLP, Taboas is working with Ericka Garcia, the Foundation’s statewide director of pro bono partnerships, to put Florida at the forefront of innovations in pro bono.

Taboas and Garcia hope their work will help Florida Bar members reach a goal Schifino has set, which is to reach two million pro bono hours annually. He sees that benchmark as attainable in the near term.

“We did close to 1.9 million hours with about 10,000 or 15,000 fewer lawyers in 2013,” Schifino said. “This is such a joint effort, and we appreciate all that The Florida Bar Foundation is doing to help make it happen.”

As president, Schifino has used his bully pulpit all year, beginning with his installation speech, to drive home the message that a lawyer’s highest calling is to uphold his or her commitment to “the cause of the defenseless or oppressed” in the Bar’s Oath of Admission.

“You may be a transactional lawyer, you may be a business litigator, but some of the most impactful work we can do may be just to help a mother out or to help a child out,” Schifino said. “What we do is a lot more than just a 9-to-5 job. It’s a profession. When you look at your life, at your body of work, adding that piece, giving back, doing something, so to speak, to move the needle, it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the feel-good thing to do.”

Higer said Bar members can expect the emphasis on pro bono to continue.

“It’s a priority this year, it was a priority last year, and it will be a priority during the year in which I am president, and I fully expect that it will continue to be a priority going forward,” Higer said.

“It’s important to get lawyers to donate their time. It’s important to get lawyers to donate money and to get money from other sources where we can. And I think the Bar Foundation, the Bar, and the Florida Supreme Court are making great strides.

“This is not a lawyer-only problem. But that doesn’t mean that lawyers should somehow step aside and say it’s not a lawyer-only problem. We still need to do our fair part.”

1 Justin Walton, Florida’s Economy: The 6 Industries Driving GDP Growth, Investopedia,

2 Id.

3 Alliance for a Just Society, The Job Gap: Economic Prosperity Series,

4 The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Florida 2016 Kids Count Profile, available at

5 Sabrina Mawani, Human Trafficking, Florida: A Modern Slavery Hub, Florida National Organization of Women, available at

6 Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, Outreach Subcommittee, Messaging for Commission Members’ Use 10 (2016),

7 Allison Shirk, New Program Seeks to Reduce High Rate of Foster Care in Volusia, Flagler, The Daytona Beach News-Journal, available at

8 Amy Sherman, Rick Scott: Florida Completely Funded the Critical Needs Waiting List for First Time, Politifact Florida,

9 Office of the U.S. Courts, Pro Se Filings per Authorized Judgeship and Rank by Major Chapter (Sept. 30, 2016).

10 The Florida Bar, Florida Bar Pro Bono Statistics Summary July 1, 2015-June 30, 2016 (2016).

11 BOA Settlement Yields Almost $1.4 Million for Foreclosure-Related Legal Assistance in Florida, The Florida Bar News, May 15, 2015.

12 How Many Lawyers Practice in Florida?, The Florida Bar News, Nov. 15, 2015.

13 T he Florida Bar, Florida Bar Pro Bono Statistics Summary July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014 at 9 (2014); The Florida Bar, Florida Bar Statistics Summary July 1, 2005-June 30, 2006 (2006).

Nancy Maass Kinnally is the director of communications for The Florida Bar Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide greater access to justice. She is also a member of the communications team for the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.

How YOU Can Become a Pro Bono Pro

• Visit to identify an organization that does work that interests you or addresses the needs of a population you want to help. This could be your local legal aid or pro bono program, your voluntary bar association or Florida Bar section, the Young Lawyers Division, or an organization that serves children, the homeless, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, or some other vulnerable group.

• Contact the program or project to let them know of your interest or attend a training session at which the program signs up new pro bono attorneys.

• Select a case or project and indicate whether you would be willing to handle it yourself or with others in your firm, or whether you would need help. If you do need help, find out if the program will match you with a mentor or if it provides training, webinars, print or online resources, staff support, or other forms of assistance. Many programs do. also provides online resources in many common substantive areas.

• Find out what sort of follow-up is required. Pro bono projects and programs often provide assistance with case closure and record-keeping as well, and they will want to know when the case is resolved.

How Judges Can Promote Pro Bono

1. Encourage pro bono work publicly.

2. Train inexperienced attorneys, including veteran attorneys who are venturing into a different subject matter area.

3. Promote pro bono at rallies, receptions, and swearing-in ceremonies.

4. Post pro bono information in your courtroom.

5. Launch or promote pro bono campaigns and organize pro bono summits.

6. Work closely with The Florida Bar Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services and your local pro bono committee to ensure their missions are being met.

7. Write articles for local bar journals or other legal publications, as well as mainstream and social media, encouraging pro bono participation and explaining its importance to access to justice.

8. Refer litigants needing pro bono assistance to a legal aid program or a pro bono lawyer if they are unable to afford full representation.

Source: Judicial webinar sponsored by The Florida Bar Foundation, featuring Judge Catherine Peek McEwen, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Middle District of Florida, and Judge Christopher Nash, 13th Judicial Circuit (Oct. 26, 2016).