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Candidates for 6th Circuit bench make pitch to peers

CLEARWATER — Candidates for two open seats on the 6th Circuit bench made their pitch Thursday to those who may know them best: other lawyers.

At a forum sponsored by the Clearwater Bar Association and the League of Women Voters, all six lawyers said their experience made them the best choice.

Running for the Group 6 seat: assistant public defender Violet M. Assaid, prosecutor Mary Handsel and private lawyer Bruce G. Howie.

Running for the Group 8 seat: Private lawyer Kenneth L. Foote, assistant public defender Susan L. Gardner and private lawyer Robert Angus Williams.

Voters in Pinellas and Pasco counties will vote for both races in the Aug. 26 primary.

Judicial candidates are not allowed to talk during their campaigns about how they may rule from the bench. They instead must rely only on their resume and experience, which can make for unexciting — albeit polite — campaigns.

Group 6 candidates

Assaid has handled more than 50 trials in her 19 years at the public defender's office, including several capital cases but none that resulted in a death sentence.

"That helps me sleep at night," she said.

Assaid also has become an expert in defending mentally ill people, for which she received the Iris Award for improving mental health treatment from the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2007.

"I have no agenda but to be a loyal public servant," said Assaid, 51.

Handsel has been a prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office for 18 years and has risen to the ranks of supervisor in the Pasco division. The wife of a Pinellas sheriff's deputy, she was the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office's Prosecutor of the Year in 2001.

Handsel, 44, has tried more than 100 trials, including 10 first-degree murder cases. She obtained guilty verdicts on all of them.

"I have the training and experience to handle the job," she said.

Howie is a Harvard-educated private lawyer who handled 122 jury trials in a 30-year career. He opened a solo practice in 2006 after working for 21 years for three law firms. His career began with a seven-year stint in the public defender's office.

While Handsel and Assaid have practiced only in criminal law, Howie said he has practiced in criminal, civil, commercial, real estate and other areas of the law. He is past chairman of the legal panel of the American Civil Liberties Union Pinellas Chapter.

"I feel I'm best qualified because of the breadth of my experience, not just the longevity," said Howie, 55.

Group 8 candidates

Foote is a former prosecutor who now has his own practice in Port Richey. Before going to law school, he ran his own funeral home business in New York.

Foote, a 1999 law school graduate, said he has appeared in more than 50 trials, more than his two opponents combined.

"My thoughts on being a judge are do the right thing and be fair to people," said Foote, 42.

Gardner is an assistant public defender in New Port Richey. She was named Pasco Public Defender of the Year in 2007. She has taken part in 16 trials in her career. She received her law degree in 1999.

"I've seen a wide range of all types of issues a judge will face," said Gardner, 46.

Williams graduated from law school in 1995 and went to work for the State Attorney's Office for four years. He tried 30 trials in that time, then went into private practice. Most of his current practice is representing builders, developers, businesses and local governments in zoning and permitting issues.

"I have dealt with a breadth of issues," said Williams, 38. "I am qualified to become the next judge."

Candidates for 6th Circuit bench make pitch to peers 08/14/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 16, 2008 3:14pm]
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