Most of the 13 Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge candidates can sum up the reason they should be elected in one word: experience.
But experience means different things to different candidates. Kelly Ann McKnight, 30, has been a lawyer only since 2004, but she says her experience as a prosecutor, handling trial after trial, would help her as a judge.
One of her opponents, civil trial lawyer Jeff O'Brien, 63, has been practicing law longer than McKnight has been alive. He says that would help him on the bench.
There's a good reason judicial candidates talk about their experience and little else. Candidates "should avoid expressing a position on any political issue," according to rules contained in the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct.
Here's what the candidates are saying about their experience:
Criminal defense lawyer Edward J. Liebling created some controversy recently when he attended a meeting of Republicans at which GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum spoke.
This wouldn't be an issue in any other kind of race, but the Code of Judicial Conduct says judge candidates must not "attend political party functions."
Liebling denies breaking the rules. He agreed the code "would not permit a judicial candidate to attend a political party's executive committee meeting, and I did not do so." He says the meeting was not of the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee, which is the main local party organization.
But Pinellas GOP chairman J.J. Beyrouti said the Aug. 9 gathering at which McCollum spoke was, in fact, a meeting of that group.
As to experience, Liebling points out that he became board certified in criminal trial law in 1995, and said he has handled 15 first-degree murder cases.
In comparison, one of his opponents, Kathryn Marie Welsh, became board certified in marital and family law last year. But Welsh said "the position is for a trial judge and I've been a trial attorney." In addition, she said she has a varied civil practice, and "a great knowledge of the law."
Lawyer Patricia "Trish" Muscarella notes that she's not a trial lawyer, but says "my extensive experience as a mediator, arbitrator and special master gives me a unique set of experience and qualifications," because some of those roles are considered "quasi-judical." She also has an AV rating from the Martindale-Hubbell rating service, the highest possible.
Civil lawyer Tom Ramsberger has been practicing for 23 years and Assistant Public Defender Patrice Moore has been practicing for 14.
Ramsberger says his legal experience is more diverse, because he has worked for other law firms, formed his own law firm, and handled commercial litigation, corporate law, mediations and several other matters. "I've handled many of the different areas that a circuit judge will be asked to handle."
Moore said she has experience practicing before just about every judge handling criminal cases in Pinellas County and specializes in mental health-related issues. "Knowing the rules of evidence and practicing in front of judges has prepared me for this next step in my life."
McKnight, a prosecutor who has been a lawyer since 2004, and O'Brien, who has been a lawyer with a civil practice since 1972, are only two of the candidates in this race. The others are LeAnne Lake and Keith Meyer.
Lake, 46, a lawyer since 1990, said that as a lawyer with a wide-ranging practice and 21 years of experience, "I'm in the courtroom on a regular basis, I'm very familiar with the system."
Meyer, 35, a lawyer since 2000, has been a prosecutor, defense attorney, and lawyer handling many different types of civil matters. That breadth of experience will help him as a judge, he said.
There's no question who has the most experience as a judge in this race. It's Michael Andrews, who has been a circuit and county judge for 13 years.
Critics say Andrews comes off as brusque and often does not treat people in the courtroom with proper respect. A nearly decade-old recording surfaced during the campaign in which Andrews can be heard using profanity in court. Andrews acknowledges that was wrong, but said it came out as he was trying to get through to a young defendant on his own level.
Challenger Deborah Moss, who has more than 20 years experience as a criminal defense attorney, and has been board certified since 1994, avoids directly criticizing Andrews. But she says she has the right demeanor to be a judge. "I'm able to resolve conflicts and able to deal with a lot of difficult situations."
Andrews said he is a hardworking judge who tries to protect the rights of defendants and victims by running an efficient courtroom, and minimizing delays. He received a statewide award from the Florida Supreme Court for one of his youth programs.
Susan St. John has been a lawyer since 2004, and has worked as an assistant state attorney since then. She currently handles gang prosecutions. This has given her plenty of trial experience that will translate well into serving as a judge, she said. She also served six years in the Army.
Kimberly Todd has been a lawyer since 1996. She's a former assistant state attorney who now works as a sole practitioner, handling civil, traffic and family law as well as business cases and other matters. "I'm not going to be learning on the job," she said.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.