By Jennifer Sheppard
VOLUSIA COUNTY — Voting for circuit judge is sort of like playing a game of pin the tail on the donkey.
“You really don’t know where you’re going to put it,” said Dr. T. Wayne Bailey, a political science professor at Stetson University.
In Florida, circuit judges are elected by popular vote, and, unlike other states such as Tennessee and Texas, where Dr. Bailey said the judicial campaigns are “very partisan and heavily finessed,” the campaigns in Florida are “purely vanilla,” and “rarely say anything sharp.”
That’s because candidates for circuit judges in Florida are prohibited from affiliating with a political party and are allowed only to tout their background and education as reasons to vote for them.
“It’s hard to know which candidates to vote for because there’s no rating system and judges are not permitted to come to the candidate forums to speak to the public,” Dr. Bailey said.
Another element of judicial elections that bothers Dr. Bailey is campaign contributions from law firms.
While judges are not allowed to raise money for themselves, they are allowed to establish committees of “responsible persons” to solicit campaign contributions.
Law firms are some of the largest contributors to the campaigns of judges who preside over cases in which those firms participate, Dr. Bailey said.
“It sort of worries you,” he said. “Can the judges forget that law firm when they have to make a decision?”
Attorneys like Dean Bunch, who serves on the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee and issues opinions to Florida state court judges on ethical questions, said, since judges are not allowed to express their opinions, one of the most important things to think about when voting for a judge is their education.
“The judge you want is the one who’s going to listen to the case and decide the case based on the evidence as they hear it,” he said. “Judges, every day, walk in and they have to learn something new. They’ve got to be fair. This is not a partisan issue, not a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s an issue of statesmanship. It’s the greatest public service.”
To be eligible for circuit court, a judge must have been a member of The Florida Bar for at least five years. The salary for a circuit judge, who serves a six-year term, is $142,178.
On the ballot this election are two seats in the 7th District Court, which covers Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties.
Joe Horrox and Dennis Craig are running for the Flagler County seat in Group 5. Scott DuPont and Don Holmes are running for the Putnam County seat in Group 10.
Volusia County voters can vote in the election for the Group 5 and Group 10 seats because the judges are subject to serve anywhere in the four-county circuit.
For seat 10, Don Holmes has spent 34 years practicing law. He graduated from Florida State University College of Law. He worked as an assistant state attorney before entering into private practice.
Scott DuPont has six years of experience practicing law, and has had his own law practice for four years. A graduate of Recent University School of Law in Va. Mr. DuPont worked for two years at the State Attorney’s Office in the 7th Judicial Circuit.
For seat 5, Joe Horrox has 23 years of experience. He graduated from Stetson Law School. He unsuccessfully ran for 7th Judicial Circuit in 2006.
Dennis Craig has 24 years of experience. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. He has also worked as an assistant state attorney in Daytona Beach.
Also on the ballot this election are merit retention votes for four Supreme Court justices and five judges in the 5th District Court of Appeals, which is headquartered in Daytona Beach and covers Volusia County.
Voters can decide if the judge and justices will stay on the bench. If enough voters vote no, the judge or justice will be replaced.
Dr. Bailey said no judge or justice has ever been denied merit retention, but he said this year Tea Party activists are “popping their suspenders” and trying to get two justices, James Perry and Jorge Labarga defeated.
Dr. Bailey said the election rules for judges up for merit retention are even tighter than those for circuit judges — they can basically do no campaigning at all. “It’s unfortunate,” he said. “They’re sort of like sitting ducks.”
Correction: In a Hometown News story
Friday about electing judges, the number of years
Dennis Craig has practiced law was incorrectly reported.
He has 24 years of experience. He is running for judge in the 7th Judicial
Circuit. We regret the error.