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Broward County braces for 20 judicial races

Senior Editor Regular News

Broward County braces for 20 judicial races

Senior Editor

Imagine the Broward County voter going to the polls on primary day, August 24.

If registered as a Democrat or Republican, the voter may have a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate primary contest in which to cast a vote. Maybe also one for Congress and perhaps a state Senate and/or House primary.

Add in a couple more for local county commission and school board races. And maybe some for special districts for hospitals, drainage, or inlets.

Count ’em all up and you probably won’t need all the fingers on two hands.

Then come the judicial races. Twenty in total. Eleven 17th Circuit races, nine for the county bench. Forty-two total candidates. And amazingly, 15 of the races involving incumbent judges — indeed more incumbent judges were challenged than were reelected without opposition — something virtually unheard of in Florida judicial elections.

Voters are going to quickly run out of fingers and toes trying to keep candidates and races straight.

Eugene Pettis “These are unprecedented numbers for Broward County or any circuit in the state of Florida,” said Eugene Pettis, a 17th Circuit representative on the Bar Board of Governors. “There are all sorts of opinions as to why we have seen this. I think the economy is a factor and folks seeing becoming a judge an upward climb from a financial standpoint.”

Another factor is in 2008, three incumbent judges were challenged — all Hispanic. All were defeated.

“In years past there have been only one or two occasions where an individual was challenged who didn’t have some kind of JQC [Judicial Qualifications Commission] issue,” Pettis said. “Last year three got challenged, and all three got knocked out. That lid has been broken. I think these folks say it’s OK to challenge an incumbent. We’ve gone from one extreme all the way to the other.”

Following the successful challenges to incumbents in 2008, “a lot of people saw the opportunity and they’re taking it,” said Jordan H. Breslaw, one of the challengers in a county court race.

A South Florida Sun-Sentinel analysis of the judicial races gives some perspective. In the previous 25 years, of 302 incumbent judges up for reelection, 285 were elected without opposition. Or put another way, only 17 incumbents have been challenged in the past quarter century, compared to 15 this year. (Five circuit and five county court judges were reelected without opposition this year.) By comparison, consider the example of the First Circuit. There, seven candidates filed for an open seat, while four incumbents were reelected without opposition.

Another measure is that for all of Florida, about one out of every three contested trial court elections this year is in Broward County.

The Perfect Storm

“It’s the perfect storm,” said Carlos Llorente, president of the Broward County Bar. “You’ve got an anti-judiciary sentiment out there. . . . Couple that with a traditional Broward County antipathy for judges.

“Voters aren’t familiar with the judge, and when they go to the polls, they traditionally vote on name recognition. People are voting on name because they don’t know the qualifications of who they are voting for. There are people deciding to run against sitting judges because they think they can take them out.”

Kelly Hancock, a Ft. Lauderdale attorney who is active in supporting judicial candidates, said the economy plays a role in the large number of races.

“I think number one, the economy affects people, too. I bet if you look on their [candidates’ financial] disclosure, it’s an increase in what they make by becoming a judge,” he said.

“I think judges should be held accountable to the public, but the problem is the public doesn’t know the judges; they don’t know the qualified ones or the unqualified ones,” Hancock added. “I think people are running for the wrong reasons. I think people are running against people and against things. They are running against the Hispanic judges or the African-American judges.. . .

“Lawyers have to participate in the process in order to let the public know who are the most qualified for the bench.”

Llorente sees several factors.

“There are all sorts of vulnerabilities. There’s minority vulnerability; there’s the Hispanic name vulnerability; there’s the skin color vulnerability; and there’s the financial vulnerability,” he said. “Some think they won’t be able to financially mount a campaign. It will be hard to raise money.

“In my opinion — and it’s strictly my opinion — there are some people taking advantage of one or three of those vulnerabilities.”

Alfreda Cowart, immediate past president of the T.J. Reddick Bar Association, said she can see both sides of the argument on electing trial judges, but is concerned that judges seem to be challenged irrespective of their abilities, and that minority judges also seem to be targets.

“There’s no rhyme or reason [to the judges who were challenged],” she said. “It doesn’t seem to be judges who were in the paper or judges the legal system had a problem with.”

But she did note the defeat of three incumbent Hispanic judges two years ago, although one was defeated by an African- American candidate.

“Now we’re up to this year, and we have three black judges who are up for election and all three have opponents. And then we have two Hispanic judges who are up for election and they received opposition,” Cowart said.

“I believe they were targeted because minority judges are believed to be weaker and less likely to prevail in county-wide elections.”

Attorney Bill Gelin and Alice Levy, president of the League of Women Voters of Broward County, said incumbent judges have been hurt by a wave of criminal corruption charges against county and municipal elected officials — not judges — as well as a spate of disciplinary actions and investigations against judges. They say the public doesn’t distinguish between the two, which leads to a distrust of all incumbents.

Gelin, who is the “principal author” of the controversial JAABlog devoted to Broward courtroom activities, also said changes in state laws and policies play a role. The creation of the Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel offices around Florida stripped criminal judges of the ability to appoint private counsel in about 80 percent of the cases when the public defender has a conflict.

“In the old days, judges could appoint any attorney that they pleased and appoint them to an unlimited number of public cases,” Gelin said. “They could basically deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars to individuals and tens of thousands to attorneys just starting out.”

That, he said, was a powerful disincentive to challenge at least sitting criminal court judges.

Levy and Gelin noted the series of high-profile corruption cases in city and county governments, including the indictment and imprisonment of the former sheriff.

Levy said voters have also seen a number of cases involving judicial conduct that have recently hit the headlines, although the involved judges have either left the bench or aren’t on the ballot this year.

“It’s a bitter pill at this point. A lot of good judges are going to pay the price for the sins of their fathers as everyone adjusts to a new paradigm and democracy again,” Gelin said. “It was a job for life as an elected official without ever having to stand for election. Now it’s democracy in action.”

I Want to Be a Judge

Challengers say they aren’t targeting minorities or running because they see an electoral weakness.

“I want to be a judge. That is why I’m running,” said Alan Schneider, who is taking on Circuit Judge Elijah Williams. “The timing is right for me at this time in my life.”

He noted his 20 years of experience handling real estate transactions, saying that could be valuable with the courts’ backlog of foreclosure cases, and has served on a council that monitors foster homes and other facilities for eight years. He also said his decision was reached on his own, and he was surprised by the large number of judicial races this year.

“It’s a very interesting dynamic going on in Broward, and it’s completely unrelated to my decision to run,” Schneider said. “I think I can do a better job than my opponent in the key qualities that a judge needs to have.”

Breslaw has filed to run against County Judge Mary Rudd Robinson, who was first appointed to the bench in 1989 and has not been challenged until now.

Breslaw notes that he’s a licensed chiropractor, a certified guardian ad litem, a Supreme Court certified mediator, has run a private practice, and has been a real estate investor and landlord.

“She’s been there since 1989. Since 1989. . . she’s always run unopposed. She’s never actually proven herself qualified to the voters. This is an opportunity to look at her qualifications,” he said.

Breslaw also has become the focal point for a frequent concern expressed in South Florida judicial races — that a certain name can imply ethnicity or other favorable factors about a candidate.

That’s because Breslaw has run —unsuccessfully — for a judgeship before in 2006. Only then he ran as Jordan H. Jordan.

He explains that he was born Breslaw, but changed his name to Jordan H. Jordan in 1991 — which is how he’s listed in Bar records.

“For the first 30 years of my life, I was knows as Jordan Howard Breslaw,” Breslaw said.

Since he grew up in Broward County, and has extensive family relations as well as many friends and acquaintances, he decided to use his original name this year.

“There are thousands of voters who know me as Breslaw, and they need to be able to find me on the ballot,” he said.

Robinson’s supporters have gone to court to have him thrown off the ballot, arguing legally there is no such person as Jordan H. Breslaw since he changed his name almost 20 years ago. Breslaw called the suit “malicious” and an “abuse of process,” adding the Florida Constitution clearly allows someone to run under their birth name. Citing the pending litigation, he declined to give the reason he changed his name in 1991.

Robinson and Williams did not return calls from the News.

( Editor’s Note Update: After this News went to press, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Edward Garrison ruled on June 19 that Broward County court candidate Jordan Breslaw should have used his legal name, Jordan H. Jordan, when he filed to challenge County Judge Mary Rudd Robinson. Judge Garrison ordered Breslaw’s name removed from the ballot. Breslaw’s attorney, Sam Lopez, said he would file an appeal with the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The deadline for printing the ballots in Broward County is June 25. If Judge Garrison’s ruling stands, Robinson will be reelected without opposition. On June 25 the 4th DCA agreed withy Breslaw and ordered his name be returned to the ballot.)

Educating Voters

Whatever the reasons for the large number of candidates, they — and various legal organizations — face a daunting task of getting the word out to voters about who the candidates are. Raising money could be a major limiting factor, especially in a bad economy.

“The pizza is the same size whether you cut it into three pieces or 18 pieces,” is how 17th Circuit Board of Governors member Nancy Gregoire described the fundraising dilemma.

And it may take a lot of pizza. Hancock noted that one of his partners, former state Sen. Skip Campbell (who also is on the Bar Board of Governors) has estimated it takes about $250,000 to run an effective county-wide campaign. He predicted, though, that most of the candidates will be able to raise only $75,000 to $100,000.

“Lawyers. . . don’t have money to give to a lot of candidates,” Hancock said.

That will mean a larger role for lawyers and bar associations, which he said must take the lead in educating the community about judicial races.

Broward County Bar’s Llorente said the association has offered all the candidates, for a $175 fee, the opportunity to make a five-minute video, which will be posted on the association’s website. Twenty-eight of the 42 judges and candidates took advantage of the video opportunity.

The association also will be holding a public forum for the candidates in August.

“It’s going to be ‘tell us your qualifications’ and we’re going to invite the public to come in and see their judges in person and the candidates in person and let them get informed on who’s who and who’s running for what,” Llorente said.

Cowart said area minority bars also have been meeting to coordinate strategies and work to educate voters about the candidates.

“We’re confident if the voters are knowledgeable of the issues, they will do the right things at the polls,” she said.

The League of Women Voters’ Levy said her organization will be working with local civic groups to help them organize forums. The league will also be collecting and collating information on where voters can get information about the judicial races.

“A major problem is we have limited news now. True journalism is really limited now and people are getting information through blogging,” Levy said. “Campaigns are now driven through advertising, rather than getting information through a good journalistic outlet.”

Bar’s Self-disclosure Form

Also, this year will see the inauguration of the Bar’s voluntary program for judicial candidates to fill out a “self-disclosure form,” which will be posted online at the Bar’s website. (See story, page 5)

Beyond this election cycle, there are concerns about what this year’s large number of contested races and challenged incumbents might mean in future years.

Llorente said he’s concerned the large number of races, and challenges to incumbents, may act to discourage qualified candidates in the future, both for appointment or election.

“You have lawyers who just left their practice [when appointed]. . . and now face a challenge. And if they don’t win, it’s kind of hard to pick up where you left off,” he said.

Seventeenth Circuit Chief Judge Victor Tobin said Llorente’s reasoning is why he thinks this year will be an “anomaly” for the number of contested races.

“No one can apply through the judicial nominating commission and take an appointment for two years, no one can run and take a position for six years,” he said. “I believe this is an anomaly and will slow down in the future. You cannot close your law office and take a position for six years.”

One impact Tobin noted is that a recent vacancy on the circuit bench drew only 15 applicants to the JNC, compared with the mornal 25 to 30 applicants.

Gregoire, however, said if a large number of the incumbent judges wind up losing this year, “it will become the norm” for sitting judges to be challenged.

The solution, she said, is for lawyers to educate the public about the judicial system and candidates, and for candidates to think about why they are running.

“All we can say is people should run for the right reasons,” she said. “It shouldn’t be race, color, religion, sexual orientation. It should be based on your belief you can do a better job as a judge than the person who is in the position.

“Search your heart and search your soul. If you’re running for the right reason, God bless you. If not, drop out now.”

Diversity could take a hit

A feared casualty of the large number of Broward judicial elections this year is diversity on the trial court bench.

Does the JAABlog play a role?

Talk with those in the legal community about the 17th Circuit judiciary and legal matters, and sooner or later the subject of the JAABlog comes up.

Bar’s self-disclosure form may help educate voters

For Broward County voters, The Florida Bar’s new self-disclosure form for judicial candidates is coming just in time.

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