On paper, the candidates for an open judicial seat in Florida’s Fifth Circuit may not look all that different.
They’re both men in their late 40s who hail from the northeastern U.S. They’ve each spent the past several years in a county-wide public service position. And though their resumes are different, they’ve both had success shifting gears in their legal careers.
But in this nonpartisan race, which voters will decide on August 28, they differ on perhaps the most fundamental question of their prospective job: What makes a good judge?
To Edward Spaight, most recently the chief assistant public defender in Citrus County, that means accounting for the feelings of people who walk into the courtroom.
"The judge needs to understand the emotional process," Spaight said. "He needs to understand people need to be heard. And how you deal with people comes from years of experience dealing with people as an advocate."
For Don Barbee Jr., the Clerk of the Circuit Court for Hernando County, it means simply calling it as he sees it.
"We don’t want (judges) to advocate," he said. "We don’t want them to legislate from the bench. We want them to read the law and apply it."
After graduating from the Western New England College School of Law — going to classes at night while working days at the New York State Department of Labor — Spaight, 48, spent seven years in Bangor, Maine, where much of his caseload included family law.
After several years, he said, his family tired of a state where the economy was bad "and the weather is worse." They moved to Florida, where Spaight got a job at the office of the Citrus County Public Defender.
"I went from never having done a criminal case in my life to doing first-degree felonies on day one," he said.
Learning on the job was trial by fire, he said, an experience he anticipates repeating if he wins the judgeship.
"I can adapt," he said. "I can learn."
Though the circuit courts handle both criminal and civil cases, Spaight said based on the history of this seat, he expects the new judge will deal largely in family and civil law.
Barbee, 49, worked as a police officer while going through law school, first at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, then at the University of Florida. After two years in private practice in Tampa and two years in Virginia as an FBI special agent, he returned to Florida and became an assistant state attorney.
Barbee ran a staff of more than two-dozen people in his last four years at the prosecutor’s office before becoming general counsel for Hernando County Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai. He was elected to the position after her retirement.
Barbee emphasized that he served as legal counsel for the clerk’s office while also running it, and noted the interaction with the public that the job demanded of him.
"I hear what the public is praising the judicial branch for, and I hear what the public is critiquing the judicial branch for," he said.
Both candidates tout endorsements from area officials — Fifth Circuit Public Defender Mike Graves and Citrus County Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith for Spaight, and State Attorney Brad King and Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis for Barbee, among them.
Barbee has a significantly higher campaign contribution total — which includes tens of thousands of dollars in loans to himself, as well as the fact that he declared for the race earlier than Spaight.
Both have raised money primarily from small contributions from individuals and some businesses.
Whoever wins the judgeship will sit full time in Hernando County. Both candidates said they’re pleased that the next judge will come from close to the seat rather than from one of the circuit’s outlying counties.
"We need somebody local to do this," Barbee said.
Reach Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow him @JackHEvans.