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15 candidates begin race for Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge positions

Fifteen people have begun a maddening quest: running for circuit judge positions for Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Four of the candidates are incumbent circuit judges who had no opponents as of Thursday night, and could be effectively re-elected by the filing deadline at noon today.

But the others have entered a political race that's like few others. State rules prevent judicial candidates from directly raising campaign cash or even expressing their views on such issues as abortion or the death penalty.

"It's an awesome challenge," said Jack Latvala, who is running for the state Senate and has been a consultant for several judicial candidates over the years.

Latvala said many voters don't actually know anything about the judicial candidates on the ballot, so "probably the single biggest determiner of who wins is how their name sounds." Women often do better than men, and newspaper editorial recommendations help.

Most candidates are lawyers without much previous political experience, he said. So they must step out of the courtroom and into the political arena, where the rules are different, the results are unpredictable and the terrain is filled with hundreds of thousands of voters who are usually quite befuddled about who to vote for.

"It's such a large area to cover," with such a diversity of people and places, said candidate Patricia "Trish" Muscarella, describing the circuit that includes all of Pinellas and Pasco counties. "I think it's difficult to touch that many people. … You're only one person."

But Muscarella, 57, a lawyer, civil court mediator and former state representative, has raised more than $45,000 in campaign contributions and said "I am organizing the neighborhoods and condo associations and mobile home parks." She said she has the demeanor, temperament and intellect to be a good judge.

Lawyer Edward J. Liebling filed on Thursday to run against her. He could not be reached for comment.

Here is a brief look at the contested Pinellas-Pasco races:

Group 20: Patrice Moore, 40, has been a lawyer since 1996 and has worked for the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office since then. "I just think my experience in the criminal justice system would make me a great judge," she said. She has worked juvenile, misdemeanor and felony cases, but said she also would love the challenge of becoming a judge in other areas.

She faces Tom Ramsberger, 48, of St. Petersburg, who became a lawyer in 1987, and has worked in his own law firm in commercial litigation, family law and as a civil court mediator. Ramsberger said "I have a keen sense of fairness" and community service, and said his more than two decades in the law is an asset because "it takes quite a few years just to become an effective attorney."

Group 27: LeAnne Lake, 46, has been a lawyer since 1990, and said that in her private practice she has handled juvenile cases, personal injury, Social Security work and family law litigation, and takes on numerous pro bono cases. "I have a lot of experience in the courtroom. I also have a lot of experience in different areas of law."

But one of her opponents, Kelly Ann McKnight, 30, says "I definitely think youth is a good thing." She said she not only has the energy and enthusiasm to make a good judge, but also the experience, as someone who works in courtrooms every day as an assistant state attorney, where she has been since 2004.

Keith Meyer, 35, a lawyer since 2000, also is running in this group. He is a former assistant state attorney who prosecuted criminal cases. Now in private practice, he also has done civil litigation and probate work. "We need to have judges that have diverse, real experiences"

GROUP 29: Incumbent Judge Michael Andrews is being challenged by Deborah Moss, who said "my demeanor, my ability to resolve conflict" are among the qualities that would make her a good judge. Moss, 52, has been a lawyer specializing in criminal defense since 1987 and spent 13 years in the Public Defender's Office and a decade in a private firm. She did not criticize the incumbent judge she is running against, but said, "Maybe it's time for a change."

Andrews said he has worked hard to be a well-prepared and fair judge who is a public servant in and out of the courtroom. "In 13 years on the bench, I think I've got a distinguished record."

GROUP 30: Susan St. John, 36, an Army veteran, has been a lawyer since 2004, and works in gang suppression as a prosecutor with the State Attorney's Office. She said her experience has taught her the value of good legal preparation and hard work, and how to make good choices in areas that can have a big impact on people's lives. "Judges have to make hard decisions. … I tend to think I'm pretty good at that."

The other candidate is Kim Todd, 41, a lawyer since 1996 who has handled family law and corporate law, and previously was an assistant state attorney. "With the length of experience that I have, I could really do a good job being a judge," she said. .

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

15 candidates begin race for Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge positions 04/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 10:21pm]
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