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Before voting in smaller races, know the candidates

There's this scene from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Mary's friend Murray is explaining his thinking on election day.

Sure, he pays close attention to the candidates he picks in the big races. But when he gets to the bottom of the ballot and to the lesser-known ones like local judges, he votes "the straight Moe ticket."

As in: Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.

Sometimes I worry that's how we elect our judges, too.

Between Hillsborough and Pinellas-Pasco, some interesting judicial elections are brewing for the Aug. 14 primary. No fewer than four sitting judges face rarely seen challenges, and nine lawyers are duking it out for four open seats. (Someone cynical would say we are past the days of big-money lawyers taking pay cuts to get to the bench. With even good lawyers scratching out a living in this economy, a steady six-figure paycheck, parking space and everyone calling you "your honor" must be particularly attractive.)

So here's a quirk about judges "running" for office: They're not supposed to talk about much, like, say, the death penalty, or abortion, or Terry Schiavo, or how they might rule in certain kinds of cases. Obviously, this is because judges are supposed to be impartial and ready to follow the law no matter what their personal beliefs are.

But it doesn't leave much to talk about, or remember them by, beyond their resumes. Though some people pay close attention to each and every race down to a hard-fought battle for a position on the Mosquito Control Board, a whole lot of us don't study up on those down-the-ballot candidates. (Eeny, meeny …)

So how their names appear on the ballot matters. Judicial candidates have in the past added Hispanic or feminine names to make their roots or gender clear when they think it will help. (Years ago, Joelle Ober went with her middle name, Ann, on the Hillsborough ballot, and won.)

The biggest current eyebrow-raiser of a race has to be former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd taking on Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe. Byrd has called the judge "not knowledgeable," "somewhat disorganized" and "inconsistent." Wolfe, who is required by judicial canons to act judiciously, noted that he has been a finalist to become an appeals court judge, which he calls "indicative of my excellent reputation in the community."

There's also the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute named for Byrd's father. With all that, might voters scratching their heads in the booth think: Oh, yeah, I've heard of that guy?

The aforementioned Judge Ober faces a challenge from attorney John Grant III. If that sounds familiar, maybe it's because former state Sen. John Grant is his dad.

Then again, so might the name Ober even if you've never been near her courtroom, since she is Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober's ex. That one could be a draw, name recognitionwise.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack Day — now there's a friendly name for a ballot — takes on prosecutor Agnes Theresa McCabe.

McCabe, you say? No, no relation to Bernie McCabe, the longtime state attorney, but it could get her votes anyway.

So why elect judges at all? Because letting hand-selected committees appoint them can be even more political, except without any input from you.

The best answer is knowing who we're voting for. That way we don't end up with a bunch of Moes.

Before voting in smaller races, know the candidates 05/17/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 17, 2012 9:41pm]
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