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Forum reveals the limits placed on judicial candidates

RIVERVIEW — They aren't allowed to say how they might rule on a controversial case. They can't campaign as members of political parties. They can't endorse other candidates running for public office, and they won't insult their opponents or question their qualifications.

But the candidates running for judicial seats in Hillsborough County do have one thing in common with typical elected officials: They would sure love to have your vote.

On Tuesday night, 10 of these judicial candidates joined a panel at Thomas Cooley Law School to introduce themselves to voters and generate interest in the Aug. 26 elections, when residents will have the opportunity to select four judges who will preside on the 13th Circuit Court and one who will serve on the county court.

But if past primaries are any indication, it's an opportunity many voters will skip.

"In my campaign, we spend a lot of time in grass roots effort, going door to door," said Laura Ward, a candidate for Circuit Court Group 20. "And that's important, because so few people know about the judges, and so few people turn out to vote for the judges.

"Part of the door-to-door effort is getting people information about my campaign, but it's also reminding them how crucially important the role of a circuit court judge is."

Circuit court judges preside over many different kinds of proceedings, including felony trials, cases involving juveniles and civil cases involving more than $15,000.

"The circuit court judge has the ability to affect one's life, one's liberty and one's property," Ward said. "Most people don't realize the circuit court judge is one of the most powerful elected positions in Hillsborough County. When you tell people that, they're much more willing and interested to listen to your background and those of the other candidates."

Because virtually all judicial candidates are running on similar platforms — by law, they are not allowed to promise much beyond fair and impartial arbitration for each individual who walks into their courtroom — their backgrounds are among the few campaign tools they can use.

After a round of introductions, the candidates answered questions prepared by the Florida Bar and audience members, ranging from "At what point would you recuse yourself from a case because of a social relationship with the litigants?" to "How would you feel if a higher court overturned your decision on appeal?"

Tuesday's event, which was hosted by the Brandon Bar Association, attracted only a few dozen audience members, many Cooley Law School students or family or friends. Still, the hopefuls remain eager to reach voters.

"The importance of a strong, healthy judiciary is something I can't state enough, and I don't think people realize that until they go in front of a judge," Circuit Court Group 8 candidate John Dingfelder said. "All of a sudden they're really happy they had a good, quality judge, or they're disappointed that perhaps they didn't have such a good experience. And going to the ballot box and voting for judge is one way that every citizen can help control it."

Victoria Jacobsen can be reached at vjacobsen@tampapbay.com.

Bidding for the bench

Here are snapshots of the judicial candidates who attended the Brandon Bar Association event Tuesday:

John Dingfelder, a Circuit Court Group 8 candidate, touted his eight-year stint on the Tampa City Council as good preparation for the sort of decisionmaking he would have to make on the bench.

One of Dingfelder's opponents for the Group 8 seat, Carl Hinson, stressed that he is a lifelong Hillsborough County resident who wants to serve his hometown and avoid legislating from the bench.

Barbara Twine Thomas, another Group 8 candidate, emphasized her history of community service and mentoring of middle and high school girls and pointed to past nominations for vacant county and circuit judge seats as evidence that she is qualified for the job.

Michael Scionti, an Army reservist running for Circuit Court Group 19, called into the event from Fort Jackson in South Carolina, where he is working on a court martial hearing. Scionti, a former state representative, worked as a state prosecutor and served as a U.S. Army Magistrate in Afghanistan.

Laura Ward says she has wanted to be a judge since she was 5 years old, when her father, a sitting judge himself, would bring her to work with him. During her legal career, she has distinguished herself by taking on a large amount of pro bono work.

Karen Stanley, who began working for the State Attorney's Office when she was fresh out of law school in 1989, is running against Ward in the Group 20 race. She promises to run an "effective and efficient docket so our taxpayers' dollars are used wisely."

Robert Bauman, Constance Daniels and Melissa Polo are running against each other for Circuit Court Group 34. In addition to his 27 years of experience in law, Bauman has coached the Jesuit High School soccer team since 1987, leading the team to five state titles and one national title. Daniels said she would bring a diverse perspective to the bench. She explained that her experience as a young parent who brought her son with her to college helps her relate to a wide array of citizens. Polo said the Hillsborough County Courthouse has been her "second home" since she was a teenager.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed Chris Nash, who currently serves as a county court judge, to his post in May 2013. Nash said his first year on the bench was successful and is strong evidence that he deserves to be elected for a full term. He is running against Norman Cannella, who did not attend Tuesday's event.

Forum reveals the limits placed on judicial candidates 06/04/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 4, 2014 2:30pm]

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