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Pinellas-Pasco bench appointment goes to the qualified — and connected

Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to appoint a new Pinellas-Pasco judge today, choosing either the husband of a current judge or a politically connected lawyer with limited recent trial experience.

The two finalists have come out of an arcane process that is designed to select judges with high professionalism and integrity, but which many say also depends on political connections.

"There are, of course, many fine people that apply for these vacancies and many, many of them are very well qualified," said political consultant Mary Repper. "But the process itself is a political one, and ultimately you have to be able to understand that to be successful."

Finalist Thomas Minkoff, 58, is former general counsel for the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee and has ties to some of the people deciding who should be judge. He was listed as a reference by one of the members of the same Judicial Nominating Commission that recommended him to the governor's office. And one of the people who interviewed him on behalf of the governor was a state representative for whom Minkoff served as campaign treasurer.

Chet Renfro, treasurer of the Pinellas Republican Party organization, also wrote to Crist, saying Minkoff "was very helpful to me on the Bush campaign in 2004, as well as your campaign in 2006, and he has spent many hours doing pro-bono work for battered and abused women." He wrote that Minkoff would "bring the kind of judicial restraint and integrity to the office that we have come to expect from judges appointed by Republican governors."

Although he is backed by prominent Republicans, Democratic state representatives Bill Heller and Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg also wrote letters of support for Minkoff.

The other finalist, John "Jack" Helinger, 57, husband of Circuit Judge Chris Helinger, is well connected to the local legal establishment. His references include four other judges from the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit (not including his wife), State Attorney Bernie McCabe and a U.S. magistrate judge from Tampa. Three more circuit judges and Public Defender Bob Dillinger wrote letters on his behalf.

Several prominent lawyers also wrote to praise his integrity and extensive trial experience. Robert J. Morris Jr., chief judge of the circuit, wrote that Helinger "could be the single most experienced litigator (both civil and criminal) in Pinellas County."

Helinger said in his application that during the past five years, he had tried more than 175 jury cases, more than 60 nonjury cases and 75 cases before administrative bodies.

Minkoff, in contrast, wrote that he had tried no jury cases, 50 nonjury cases and five before administrative bodies during that same time period. Minkoff also said he appeared in court about four times a month.

Crist's general counsel, Jason Gonzalez, who helps oversee the selection process, said state Rep. Darryl Rouson was one of two people asked to assist the governor's staff in interviewing six candidates for the position who had been recommended by the local Judicial Nominating Commission. He said that Rouson, in the interest of full disclosure, let everyone know that Minkoff had assisted in his campaign.

"He actually volunteered that before I'd even asked, and also he volunteered that I believe Jack Helinger, one of the other nominees, had recommended him years ago to become the first black assistant state attorney," Gonzalez said.

Rouson is a Democrat, but previously was a registered Republican and supported Crist, also a Republican, for governor.

Whoever gets the appointment by Crist will be up for election when the six-year term ends.

Crist is appointing a judge in this case because former Circuit Judge Nelly Khouzam was appointed to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, leaving a local vacancy. So the Judicial Nominating Commission for the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit looked at several candidates and prepared a list of six finalists. Gonzalez's staff helped winnow that group to two finalists, whom Crist interviewed individually this week.

University of Florida law professor Jon Mills, a former Democratic speaker of the Florida House, said this system is "one of the better processes. But, of course, it all comes down to the final appointment of the governor."

He said it's better than some states that do not have committees like the JNC to screen candidates and check their qualifications.

Lawyer Peter N. Meros, a member of the JNC, called the system "an excellent process, and the history of it shows that it is an excellent method by which to assure that we pick the best possible judges for the public."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@sptimes.com.

Pinellas-Pasco bench appointment goes to the qualified — and connected 12/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 9:08pm]
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