The judges of Pinellas and Pasco counties make countless decisions on a dizzying variety of cases — wrongful deaths and wrong-way turns, last wills and first appearances, living wills and death penalties.
But this week the judges themselves have come under scrutiny, thanks to a survey of local lawyers that is stirring plenty of comment and controversy.
A newly formed legal group recently polled lawyers to ask about the demeanor, professionalism and fairness of local judges. It posted the results on a blog, floridayoujudge.com.
For lawyers and people involved in the legal system, the survey results are fascinating but also controversial.
Lawyer Haydee Oropesa, who started the survey with help from some of her well-known peers, said the results could provide a good way to let the public know how each judge is viewed by attorneys who are familiar with their work. After all, she said, the judges "get paid with taxpayer money; they serve the people." Also, she said, the survey could provide judges with information they could use to improve their work.
Oropesa said she hears from many people — some in her own family — who don't know how to vote in judicial races, and an outside evaluation like this can help.
"I want the community to understand who they elect as their public servant," Oropesa said.
But Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady doesn't think the survey is valid. He points to the blog, which says that just 115 of 3,200 lawyers who were contacted by email actually returned surveys — less than 4 percent. He said there's no way the 115 lawyers know all 69 judges in the two counties.
"Is it a legitimate evaluation of the judges of the 6th Circuit? I would say no. It may be interesting, but it's not a true evaluation."
Incidentally, McGrady scored relatively high — 4.31 on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent).
As in any poll, there are some winners and losers. Judges who received fairly low ratings included Circuit Judges Cynthia Newton (2.6), William Webb (2.63) and Nancy Moate Ley (2.98), along with Pasco County Judge Debra Roberts (2.5) and Pinellas County Judge Cathy McKyton (2.81). A rating of 2 is considered "average."
Highly rated judges included Pasco County judges Paul Firmani (4.55) and Frank Grey (4.72), along with Pinellas County Judge Edwin Jagger (4.66). A 4 is considered "very good."
The new group behind the survey calls itself the Association of Lawyers Promoting Judicial Excellence. Its "polling officers" for the survey included Oropesa, well-known criminal defense attorney Denis de Vlaming and defense attorney Sonny Im, a former Pinellas County judge.
This is not the first time local judges have been evaluated in surveys. The Clearwater and St. Petersburg Bar associations have done so.
Josh Chilson, president of the Clearwater Bar Association, said he intends to appoint a committee to discuss whether to revive its survey.
He said that move was not prompted by the new group's survey. After reviewing it, he said he had some concerns about its validity, particularly because of the small response rate.
Raleigh Greene, president of the St. Petersburg Bar Association, said he had not had a chance to review the new poll. He said his Bar association has no plans to revive its survey.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232. Follow on Twitter @ckruegertimes.