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A Times Editorial

Poor judicial choice

Gov. Charlie Crist had an easy choice: elevate one of two highly experienced county judges to fill a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court vacancy, or appoint a Republican insider with limited courtroom experience. The governor could act in the best interests of his own community, or he could pursue his own political agenda. Continuing a disappointing trend, he acted for his own good instead of the public's.

Thomas Minkoff is a former general counsel of the Republican Party of Pinellas County and a party regular. As Crist eyes a primary challenge against the more conservative Marco Rubio for a U.S. Senate seat, he faces an insurrection among many local party activists around the state. Minkoff's appointment may have helped Crist cement a few more relationships with party insiders, but he disappointed anyone who cares about a nonpartisan, quality judiciary.

The other two finalists for the circuit court seat formerly held by Judge Robert J. Morris, who was elevated to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, were Pinellas County Judges Paul Levine and Dorothy Vaccaro. Levine has been a Pinellas County judge since 1994, Vaccaro since 2002. They both have experience as acting judges on the Pinellas-Pasco circuit from time to time and are well qualified.

Compare that to Minkoff, who said in his application that only 5 percent of his legal work has been in trial practice over the last five years. Minkoff, 59, is interim city attorney in Gulfport and has spent much of his career working for a real estate investment firm. On his application, he did not cite a single jury trial that he handled to completion.

But what Minkoff lacks in practical skill he makes up for in political connections. In addition to being counsel to the local Republican Party organization from 2005 to 2007, he and his wife have been generous donors to Republican candidates and the party. Minkoff was a finalist for a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge appointment in 2008, but Crist smartly named John "Jack" Helinger. Before that appointment, Chet Renfro, the treasurer of the Pinellas Republican Party organization, wrote to Crist to say how "very helpful" Minkoff was on the George Bush presidential campaign in 2004 and Crist's campaign in 2006.

Minkoff lacks the experience that would distinguish him as a front-runner for a judicial appointment, yet he is picked as a finalist by the local Judicial Nominating Commission, and the governor must choose from the JNC list. Why does a lawyer make the list whose main claim to fame is his political resume? Because the state's 26 nominating commissions have been politicized since 2001, when a GOP-led Legislature changed the rules to allow the governor to choose every JNC member.

Before that, the nominating commissions were far more independent. The Florida Bar would pick three members of each commission, the governor would pick three and those six would choose the last three members. But when Jeb Bush became governor, he sought more direct control, with the predictable result that the nominating commissions are full of political appointees who can consider party loyalty an asset as strong as sterling legal qualifications. Minkoff's successful candidacy adds more evidence to the case for overhauling the appointment process to the nominating commissions.

Ultimately, though, the decision to appoint a circuit judge still rests with the governor. This time, Crist chose the most partisan and least qualified finalist to be a circuit judge in his home county. It is further evidence that he is more interested in being elected senator than in acting in the public interest as a lame-duck governor.

Poor judicial choice 10/07/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 3:05pm]
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