Five Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court seats are on the Aug. 24 ballot, including four open ones. At least three races will be decided because they have only two candidates. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the other two races, the top two finishers will face each other in November. • Among the considerations in recommending judges are professional credentials and experience, temperament, work ethic, fairness and compassion. Circuit judges are elected to six-year terms and handle felony cases as well as family law, juvenile cases and civil lawsuits with damages of more than $15,000.
Kathryn Marie Welsh | Group 18
Kathryn Marie Welsh, 49, has been practicing law for 22 years, almost entirely as a sole practitioner, and is the best choice to succeed retiring Judge George Greer. Her long experience suggests she is comfortable juggling many cases while meeting the challenges of running an office. At times, Welsh says, she may be handling 100 civil cases. Welsh is a board-certified marital and family law specialist and a certified family mediator. Her Largo civil practice is diverse, from foreclosures to negligence suits, but her specialty and the bulk of her practice is in family law.
People who know her work say she represents her clients well and is well liked. Welsh has given back to the community in a variety of ways, including as a Guardian ad Litem and a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. She says that as a judge she would "treat every individual who steps into the courtroom with the courtesy, respect and attention they deserve."
Patricia Muscarella, 57, specializes in dispute resolution while serving as a special master. The former North Pinellas legislator is politically well-connected and personable, but she has not maintained a traditional legal practice and essentially has no trial court experience.
Edward Liebling, 51, is a Palm Harbor criminal defense attorney in private practice and a former assistant public defender. He has plenty of trial experience, but it's not clear he has the temperament to be a judge.
Welsh's long career, diverse legal experience and solid reputation among her peers make her the clear choice. In Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 18, the Times recommends Kathryn Marie Welsh.
Patrice Moore | Group 20
There are two excellent candidates running for the seat now held by retiring Judge Irene Sullivan. Moore, 41, gets the edge and by all accounts embodies the qualities required of a successful judge.
Moore's legal skills, work ethic and performance in the courtroom are impressive. A lawyer for 15 years, the St. Petersburg resident has spent nearly her entire career as an assistant public defender. For the last decade she has specialized in representing clients who could be classified as severely mentally ill. For the past three years, she has been part of an experimental program in unified family court where she represents children in civil dependency cases and in criminal court. Her background reflects an empathy for people who are unable to effectively advocate for themselves and broader experience than may appear at first glance.
Moore's engaging personality will be an asset on the bench. People who have worked with her describe her as smart, kind and always professional. Moore, who is African-American, would bring needed diversity to the 6th Judicial Circuit bench, where there is only one black judge now.
Tom Ramsberger, 48, is a well-respected civil litigator who works in his own St. Petersburg firm. Ramsberger has been a lawyer since 1987 and has broad experience in commercial litigation, family law and mediation.
In Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 20, the Times recommends Patrice Moore.
Keith Meyer | Group 27
This is a four-way race for the seat of retiring Judge Ray Ulmer, featuring candidates with varied backgrounds and experience. Defense lawyer Keith Meyer lands about in the middle and is the best choice in a crowded field with no standout.
Meyer, 35, is a former prosecutor now in private practice with the Clearwater law firm of Tinny, Meyer & Piccarreto. He represents clients in criminal defense and general civil litigation matters. Meyer has a commitment to giving back, participating in various pro bono programs, including local free legal clinics. In 2009, Meyer received recognition for his outstanding pro bono service with Gulf Coast Legal Services.
Meyer is known as a fine lawyer with good judgment. He says the most important qualities in a judge are an even temperament, the understanding that comes with experience and flexibility.
LeAnne Lake, 46, is a sole practitioner in Clearwater who has been a lawyer since 1990 and whose practice is varied, including family, bankruptcy, probate and criminal defense law. Kelly Ann McKnight, 30, is an energetic assistant state attorney with less experience than her opponents. Jeff O'Brien, 63, is a seasoned Clearwater civil litigator who is well respected among his peers and works out of his own firm. Each of these candidates has some admirable qualities, but the edge goes to Meyer.
In Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 27, the Times recommends Keith Meyer.
Michael Francis Andrews | Group 29
Judge Michael Andrews, the only African-American judge on the 6th Judicial Circuit, has drawn an opponent for the first time in 13 years on the bench. Public Defender Bob Dillinger and some private trial lawyers complain about Andrews' temperament in the courtroom. But there is no evidence that Andrews regularly fails to follow the law, and he is not the first judge accused of imperious behavior by unhappy lawyers. Andrews works hard, runs trials efficiently and should remain on the bench.
Andrews, 46, was appointed to the county bench by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1997. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to the circuit court in 2003. Before becoming a judge, Andrews was an assistant state attorney.
As with many judges, Andrews has held a variety of division assignments, including stints in juvenile and family courts. In each court he distinguished himself as a judge who moves a docket, works long hours and makes attorneys stick to tight deadlines. He was moved last year to a criminal division in Pasco County to reduce the backlog of cases, and he has succeeded.
There are attorneys who sing Andrews' praises as a hard-working, fair but tough judge. There are others who have practiced before him who consider him unprofessional and biased. The judge acknowledges he has spoken with lawyers about his courtroom demeanor, and he has apologized on a few occasions for an inappropriate remark. A check of Andrews' rulings that have been reversed by an appellate court indicate he is not reversed more frequently than other circuit judges presiding over similar cases.
Outside the courtroom, Andrews works diligently to better the lives of at-risk boys. In 2010, he won the Pinellas Education Foundation's Unsung Hero Award for being a role model and mentor to students in his wife's classroom at Clearwater Fundamental Middle School. In 2008, he was awarded the Florida Supreme Court's Distinguished Service Award for holding an annual forum where judges speak to children and parents about setting goals.
Deborah Moss, 52, is a well-respected criminal defense attorney in private practice. Before joining the Clearwater firm of Carlson, Meissner, Hart & Hayslett, Moss spent 13 years in the public defender's office. She acknowledges she was recruited to run against Andrews by lawyers unhappy with the judge's demeanor. That should not be the driving motivation for someone seeking election to the bench.
In Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 29, the Times recommends Michael Francis Andrews.
Kimberly Todd | Group 30
Kimberly Todd has the demeanor and diverse experience to succeed retiring Judge John Lenderman. She has been a practicing lawyer since 1996 and was a prosecutor early in her career. Now as a sole practitioner, Todd works in a variety of areas including family law, criminal defense and general civil litigation. The Clearwater lawyer has experience in almost every area of law practiced in front of the circuit bench.
Todd, 41, comes from a politically well-connected family. Her mother, Barbara Sheen Todd, was a longtime Pinellas county commissioner and her late father, Tom Todd, was a Pinellas School Board member. In addition to her legal experience, Todd has a warm, engaging personality and would treat those who came before her with compassion. She has participated in a variety of volunteer and pro bono activities through the Clearwater Bar and the broader community.
Susan St. John, 36, served in the Army for six years before going to law school. She has been an attorney for six years, working as a prosecutor and specializing in gang suppression. St. John is known for her strong legal skills and professionalism. But she used poor judgment by sending out a campaign mailing that pictured her at a gun range below the headline, "True Grit.'' That sends a different message than the measured, objective presence required on the bench.
Todd has longer and more diverse experience. In Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 30, the Times recommends Kimberly Todd.