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Crist appoints former GOP lawyer to circuit bench over two sitting judges

Gov. Charlie Crist appointed the former legal counsel of the Pinellas Republican Party to a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge position on Tuesday, passing over two sitting judges with a combined 22 years of experience on the bench.

Crist, a Republican, chose Thomas Minkoff, 59, who has been interim city attorney in Gulfport, counsel for a real estate investment firm and a member of the Pinellas County Housing Authority.

Although Crist said in a statement that "Tommy's two decades of experience practicing law make him prepared to take the bench," Minkoff has significantly less trial experience than the other two finalists, Pinellas County Judges Paul Levine and Dorothy Vaccaro.

Minkoff said in his application that 5 percent of his legal work during the past five years has been trial practice. He said he had appeared in court about four times a month.

Asked to describe the cases that he had taken all the way to a verdict or judgment, he listed 54 nonjury cases, one arbitration case and five cases before administrative bodies. He did not list any jury trials. The time period covered was not clear.

Levine and Vaccaro have served as Pinellas County judges since 1994 and 2002, respectively. In addition to serving as judges on the county level, they frequently fill in as acting judges for the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, meaning they have experience in the jobs they were applying for.

Crist said Levine and Vaccaro were "able people," but he selected Minkoff partly because "I like his temperament. I know him relatively well. He's been active in civic duties in the Pinellas County area for some time."

The governor denied picking him because of GOP politics. In fact, Crist said he was impressed that Minkoff had bipartisan support, including backing from Democratic state Reps. Bill Heller and Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg.

"That's always been meaningful to me," Crist said. "I just think he'll do a good job. I think he's level-headed, patriotic and loves our country."

Some praised Crist for the selection.

"I know Tom, and I think he'll make a fine judge," said former Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, a lawyer. "I think the governor had a very, very tough choice to make."

Pinellas Republican state committeeman Tony DiMatteo, a former Pinellas Republican chairman, said Minkoff is "very compassionate, very intelligent, he has a great temperament."

Asked how members of the local Republican Party organization would react to the news, he said: "I think everyone will be extremely happy … he's extremely well liked."

Not everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. Pinellas Democratic chairman Ramsay McLauchlan said there's nothing wrong with appointing someone with political party experience, but said "one would hope that that's not your highest or most important experience."

McLauchlan said he could not say which of the three finalists was best, but said it would be unfortunate if "the political ambition and ideology of a governor comes ahead of what is probably a higher level of legal expertise."

Robert Batey, a professor of criminal law at the Stetson University College of Law, said judicial appointments like this one are less political than an actual election. The state sets up judicial nominating commissions of lawyers and nonlawyers, who evaluate applicants for open judge positions. They select finalists and the governor picks from the finalists.

But even in this system, "politics plays an undeniable role," Batey said.

As to the finalists' trial experience, he said "many fine judges" started their careers on the bench with limited trial experience. Nonetheless, he said, most people would agree that significant trial experience is preferred.

In addition to other legal work, Minkoff was pro bono attorney of the year for Gulfcoast Legal Services in 2006. His assignment on the circuit bench — whether he will serve in criminal trials, in family law matters or in civil cases — has not yet been decided.

He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

Crist appoints former GOP lawyer to circuit bench over two sitting judges 10/06/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 12:10pm]
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