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Nomination process fuels debate on how Florida picks judges

LARGO — Pinellas Circuit Judge Marion Fleming had to seek reelection this year if she wanted to keep the job she's held since 1996.

Lawyers with judicial ambition rarely challenge sitting judges —especially one like Fleming, who is regarded as sensible and hard-working.

But this election has a wrinkle.

And after the qualifying deadline passed May 2, three lawyers were running for Fleming's seat. And Fleming was not.

What happened provides insight into a continuing debate about how Florida picks its judges. Trial judges are elected to six-year terms but also may be appointed by the governor if a sitting judge retires or dies during a term.

The wrinkle in this election is that Fleming is 68 years old. State law requires that trial judges retire at age 70.

If Fleming ran and won, she would have to step down just nine months later. That would amount to less than 15 percent of her term.

Fleming thought she'd run anyway .

She says Gov. Charlie Crist can do a better job picking her successor than voters can. Crist would make his choice from a list provided by a Judicial Nominating Commission.

The nomination process has been criticized for benefitting lawyers with connections or whose politics match the governor's. But running for office forces judges to raise money from the very lawyers who appear before them, and even asking for votes seems undignified to some.

"There is no perfect way to pick a judge, " Fleming said. "But I have come to believe that the process of having a judicial nominating commission interview candidates, select and send the proposed list to the governor for him to appoint, provides for, in my opinion, judicial excellency. Because you have the opportunity for the legal cream of the crop, so to speak, to rise to the top."

Fleming says too many voters don't pay attention to judicial races and don't know much about the candidates. It doesn't help that judicial candidates are forbidden from talking about issues except in generalities. I've had some tell me that they vote because they like the sound of the name," Fleming said. "I mean, can you imagine? Circuit judges are the only people in the state of Florida who can take away a person's life, freedom, even terminate the rights to his or her child. That is serious business. Not something that you choose this person because you like the sound of their name."

But Assistant State Attorney Mary Handsel, 43, and Assistant Public Defender Violet Assaid, 50, don't share Fleming's philosophy. Both believe the voters should have a chance to elect a judge to serve a full term.

Both chose to run against Fleming because she could only serve such a short time.

"I have no desire to see the voting process subverted that way," Assaid said. "I don't know that it's fair to take the voters' decision from them."

Handsel said she believes judges shouldn't run for reelection if they are forced to retire before so little of their term is up.

"Running for reelection when you can only serve nine months kind of overcomes the spirit of the election process," Handsel said. "You shouldn't try to circumvent the election process just because you don't believe in it."

Private lawyer Bruce Howie also joined the race.

He had called Fleming months before the qualifying deadline to say he was interested in her seat, but decided not to run when Fleming told him she would seek reelection. She promised to call him if she changed her mind.

Fleming called Howie, 55, after she found out Handsel was running. Fleming also decided to drop out.

Fleming didn't want to risk the $100,000 it would take to run, along with eligibility to be a senior judge — which she would lose if she were defeated.

"I believe in my principle but I don't believe in it worth $100,000 or more," Fleming said.

The debate over electing or appointing judges is nothing new. Florida voters in 2000 soundly turned back an effort by the state's legal community to have all judges appointed.

Handsel said both methods are necessary.

"I think they balance each other out," she said. "It's literally two different ways to get there and it gives a lawyer options."

In this situation, Assaid said all three candidates are qualified.

"Voters can't make a mistake in this race," she said.

There is an ironic footnote to this case.

Twelve years ago, Pinellas Circuit Judge Fred Bryson summoned Fleming — then a lawyer — into his chambers.

"I haven't told anybody yet," Bryson told her, "but I'm going to retire. I want you to run for my seat."

Bryson could have run for reelection, retired during his term and hoped the governor chose Fleming.

But Bryson didn't like the nomination process.

"No committee is going to fill my seat," he told Fleming.

Fleming defeated three other candidates.

She was reelected without opposition in 2002. Bryson has since died.

Said Fleming: "He and I probably differed on this issue."

>>Fast facts

Judicial options

Three lawyers have filed to run for the seat being vacated by Pinellas Circuit Judge Marion Fleming.

The candidates are:

Mary Handsel, 43,

assistant state attorney.

Violet Assaid, 50,

assistant public defender.

Bruce Howie, 55,

private lawyer.

Nomination process fuels debate on how Florida picks judges 05/10/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 13, 2008 1:34pm]
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