Observers say judicial campaigns have crossed line

TAMPA — Campaign mailings for two Hillsborough judicial candidates have people debating what is acceptable political speech for nonpartisan races and stirring up what had been a quiet election season.

One judicial candidate called her opponent, an incumbent, "inefficient and ineffective." An e-mail on behalf of another judicial candidate suggests a competitor is "more liberal."

Critics say the statements go too far. The candidates disagree.

In a mailer sent to absentee voters, veteran family law attorney Catherine Catlin criticizes incumbent Circuit Judge J. Kevin Carey as "inefficient and ineffective." The mailer says "Our Taxpayers Deserve Better — a judge who controls a courtroom, makes rulings without months of delay and puts in a full day's work 'just like the rest of us.' "

Carey supporters, many of them lawyers who last week flooded editorial writers' e-mail with letters, are fuming over what they feel is an unwarranted attack. They describe Carey, elected to the bench in 2002, as tireless and diligent.

"I'm disappointed," Thomas Scarritt Jr., a lawyer and Carey's campaign coordinator, said of the mailer. "It's bringing down the level of the integrity of the system."

According to the rules that govern judicial elections, candidates generally may criticize a political opponent as long as the statements are "truthful, pertinent and material to judicial office." They must not "knowingly misrepresent the identity, qualifications, present position or other fact" about another judicial candidate.

Catlin said voters want to know why she is challenging an incumbent. The mailer is based on her personal experiences from practicing law in front of Carey for 3 1/2 years and can be corroborated by other lawyers, she said.

"That is my opinion," she said. "You do not give up your right for free speech just because you're running for judge."

Pat Anderson, who has prosecuted cases for the Judicial Qualifications Commission, said judicial candidates must walk a "fine and difficult line" with their campaign literature. Catlin, she said, may have crossed it.

"She's making a direct personal attack on this incumbent," said Anderson, who is not involved in either campaign. "She might be completely accurate in her comment but, believe it or not, that's not really the standard."

The campaign rhetoric also has heated up in the race between Linda Courtney Clark and Lisa Campbell, both private lawyers seeking to replace retiring Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett.

A letter authored by former state Sen. John Grant and circulating on e-mail listservs notes that Clark "has a tough campaign and faces someone who takes a far more liberal position on the social and moral issues that you and I care about." The letter mentions Clark's church involvement but nothing about her legal background.

In an interview, Grant, a conservative Republican, said he considers Campbell more liberal because she is a registered Democrat who supports Barack Obama for president. He said Campbell can be judged by her affiliations even though judicial races in Florida are supposed to be strictly nonpartisan.

"Everybody still takes their views to the bench," Grant said. "They don't go in a vacuum."

Campbell declined to say who she supports for president, because she's running in a nonpartisan race.

Grant's letter prompted a sharply worded response from Campbell supporter and lawyer Morris "Sandy" Weinberg Jr., who said partisan comments "absolutely have no place in a judicial race."

"I really find that to be beyond the pale," Weinberg said. "He's a lawyer. He knows better."

Anderson, the lawyer who is unaffiliated with the campaigns, said Grant is using "code language" to imply that Campbell's political beliefs would negatively affect her ability to serve.

"He's injected partisanship into a nonpartisan race," Anderson said. "And he probably should not do that."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Observers say judicial campaigns have crossed line 08/05/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 10, 2008 12:21pm]

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