The Aug. 26 primary election features two races for circuit court judge in the 6th Judicial Circuit, covering Pinellas and Pasco counties. The top two vote-getters in each race face off in November if no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote. Circuit judges hear felony and family law cases, and civil disputes involving damages of more than $15,000. They are elected to six-year terms in nonpartisan races.
Bruce Howie | Group 6
Three qualified, experienced attorneys are competing for the seat held by Circuit Judge Marion Fleming, who is near mandatory retirement age and not seeking re-election. Each candidate possesses particular strengths, but on balance Howie has the edge. He is a seasoned attorney with 30 years of experience and the only candidate who has practiced in nearly every area of law a circuit court judge is called upon to review.
Howie, 55, has spent the bulk of his career practicing criminal and civil law in private law firms, including his own practice. But he started out in the public sector as a Pinellas-Pasco assistant public defender. He is known for his meticulous preparation and professorial approach to legal issues. He has handled more than 100 jury trials in both state and federal court and has successfully argued before the Florida Supreme Court.
Over many years, Howie has taken numerous pro bono cases challenging constitutional rights violations, donating his time without having the deep pockets of a big law firm behind him. He recently taught an undergraduate course in constitutional law at Eckerd College, and he regularly visits high school classes to lecture on rights and responsibilities.
Violet Assaid, 51, has spent her 19-year legal career as an assistant public defender. Assaid is praised for her work as head of the mental health division within the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office. She took the Department of Children and Families to court when it failed to promptly move mentally ill inmates from jail into therapeutic settings as the law required.
Mary Handsel, 44, is a well-regarded career prosecutor who has worked in the office of Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe for 18 years. She supervises other prosecutors in the New Port Richey office and pushed for an alternative drug court in Pasco County. She was an unsuccessful candidate for circuit judge in 2006.
These are three good candidates who have the potential to be fine judges. One has an a slight advantage with a broader range of experience. For the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Group 6, the Times recommends Bruce Howie.
Robert Williams | Group 8
Three attorneys are competing for the seat being vacated by Judge Wayne Cobb, who is retiring after 31 years. The standout is Robert Williams.
Williams, 38, has been practicing law since 1995, first as an assistant state attorney with Bernie McCabe's office and now as a land use and zoning specialist in a Tampa law firm. Those who have worked with Williams indicate he has the mix of intelligence, compassion and good judgment needed on the bench.
Williams grew up on a small family farm in Lakeland. He says a judge should bring to the job his "common sense, professional experience and life experience." From his work in the State Attorney's Office, Williams has a substantial number of jury trials under his belt. His law firm clients primarily seek his counsel in environmental, zoning and land use law, where it is relatively rare for issues to get to trial.
Susan Gardner, 46, is an assistant public defender with the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office. She has been with the New Port Richey office for two years and has been practicing law since 1999. Kenneth Foote, 42, has his own Port Richey-based law firm. Admitted to the Florida Bar in 2000, Foote worked at the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office and for two firms in West Palm Beach before opening his own practice.
Gardner and Foote could use more professional experience. For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Group 8, the Times recommends Robert Williams.