Sunday, December 17, 2017
Editorials

Times recommends for Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court

Candidate replies The Tampa Bay Times offers candidates not recommended by the editorial board an opportunity to reply. Candidates for Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judge should send their replies no later than 5 p.m. Thursday to Tim Nickens, editor of editorials, Tampa Bay Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731; or through our website at www.tampabay.com/letters. Replies are limited to 150 words.

Five Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court seats are on the Aug. 26 ballot, including four open ones. At least four races in the 6th Circuit will be decided in this election because they have only two candidates. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the race with three candidates, the top two finishers will face each other in November. Circuit judges serve six-year terms and are paid $142,178 per year. They hear felony cases, probate and family law issues as well as civil disputes involving damages in excess of $15,000. These are nonpartisan races open to all Pinellas and Pasco voters.

Susan St. John Group 1

Both lawyers seeking to succeed retiring Judge Lauren Laughlin are credible candidates. Susan St. John has the broader experience in both private life and the courtroom.

St. John, 40, has spent 10 years as a Pinellas-Pasco assistant state attorney. She worked her way through juvenile cases, domestic violence and child abuse prosecutions before becoming the supervising attorney of the gang unit. St. John has handled more than 70 jury trials and is in court most days. She is known for her strong work ethic and ability to manage a heavy case load. She ran unsuccessfully for circuit judge four years ago, and she was a finalist last year for a gubernatorial appointment to the bench.

After high school, St. John spent six years in the Army and served as a parachute rigger. She has a 20-year-old disabled son who she says has taught her patience.

Laura Snell, 34, oversees the juvenile division for the Pinellas-Pasco public defender. She spent 2 ½ years representing defendants in both county and circuit court, left for a year in private practice where she handled adoptions, and returned to the public defender's office in 2008. She is known as a quick study in family court who offers creative solutions to difficult situations. She is active on Florida Bar committees and president of the Pinellas PACE Center for Girls. St. John has more experience than when she last ran for judge and is well-prepared.

For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 1, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Susan St. John.

Alicia Polk Group 2

Three lawyers with different life experiences and legal backgrounds are competing to succeed retiring Judge Raymond Gross. The most promising is Alicia Polk, a former assistant state attorney now in private practice who has handled a variety of family, civil and criminal cases. Polk, 36, is a native of Dade City and has practiced law there for the last six years at Hersch & Polk. She is involved in her community and values the opportunity to pursue her profession in her hometown. She has extensive trial experience, and she appreciates the importance of being even-tempered on the bench and running an efficient courtroom. Polk does volunteer legal work for several local nonprofits and recently began volunteering to help expunge the records of victims of human trafficking.

Ken Lark, 55, is an intriguing candidate who worked more than a decade as a paramedic and registered nurse before graduating from Florida State University's College of Law. The St. Petersburg lawyer practices in areas such as health care and probate, and he is well-regarded for his even temperament. He has little jury trial experience but extensive experience as a mediator in civil and family law. Lark is better known for his community work, such as organizing mortgage foreclosure forums.

Alan Rosenthal, 43, is the weakest candidate in this field. The St. Petersburg lawyer has practiced for 17 years and has no jury trial experience. He has his own firm that specializes in family law and uses the slogan, "Divorce for Men.'' Polk has the diverse legal background, temperament and grounding in her community to become a fine judge. For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 2, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Alicia Polk.

Kimberly Sharpe Group 16

There is a clear-cut choice between two candidates to succeed retiring Judge Walt Logan. Clearwater lawyer Kimberly Sharpe is significantly younger than St. Petersburg lawyer Brian Battaglia and has spent far fewer years practicing law. She also has the best potential to become an outstanding judge.

Sharpe, 33, has been practicing for eight years at the Clearwater firm of Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns. She became a partner in the firm more than two years ago, a sign of her superior ability and sound grasp of the law. While she has little jury trial experience, she has regularly appeared in courtrooms for hearings on various issues and done some appellate work. She has experience in areas ranging from probate to land use to employment law. Judges and other lawyers familiar with her work say she has a strong work ethic, writes thoughtful briefs and comes to court well-prepared.

Battaglia, 53, is a St. Petersburg lawyer whose practice has included health and land use law. He spent his career at the firm founded more than 50 years ago by his father, Anthony Battaglia, before establishing his solo practice a year ago. He ran unsuccessfully for judge two years ago, and he is best known for his long commitment to pro bono work for indigent clients and for his civic efforts.

Sharpe has been a lawyer for less time, but she has the greater potential to grow into an excellent judge. For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 16, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Kimberly Sharpe.

Phil Matthey Group 21

There are two credible candidates in this race to succeed retiring Judge Stanley Mills. The edge goes to Assistant State Attorney Phil Matthey, who has prosecuted high-profile cases in Pasco County and has the most extensive trial experience.

Matthey, 37, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Florida to attend college. He was a deputy sheriff in Orange County for two years, graduated from law school and spent four years as an assistant state attorney in Clearwater. He moved to Jacksonville for family reasons and was in private practice for a year there before returning in January 2010 to work for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe in Pasco County. Matthey is highly regarded by his bosses and assistant public defenders, manages a heavy case load well and has handled more than 60 jury trials.

Amanda Colon, 38, has been in private practice for nearly eight years in Pasco County and specializes in marital and family law. She was the first in her family to attend college, and her previous experience includes three years as an assistant state attorney and two years in the state attorney general's Tampa office. But Colon has significantly less trial experience than Matthey and has raised little money for her campaign.

For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 21, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Phil Matthey.

Bruce Boyer Group 35

There is only one credible candidate in this race. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Bruce Boyer has served as a competent judge for 23 years and has been unopposed since he won a three-way race for an open seat in 1990. There is no compelling reason for voters to remove him from the bench.

Boyer, 67, has presided over more than 200 jury trials. He closes roughly 1,500 cases a year, and his decisions have rarely been reversed on appeal. Boyer keeps a low profile in the courthouse, and he is known as a no-nonsense judge who runs an efficient courtroom. With the use of electronic filings, he often conducts hearings by telephone and strives to rule promptly rather than taking issues under advisement and making parties wait for a decision.

State law requires circuit judges to retire at age 70 unless that birthday comes more than halfway into the six-year term. In those cases, judges can serve beyond their 70th birthday and complete the term. In Boyer's case, he would have to leave the bench by his 70th birthday, just more than two years after this election, and the governor would appoint his successor.

Two more years of Boyer on the bench is far better than the alternative.

Jon Newlon, 41, is not a viable candidate. The Pasco County lawyer has his own family law practice, but he has no jury trial experience and no argument for replacing Boyer beyond the incumbent judge's age. Newlon also has a messy personal and financial history that raises questions about his judgment.

For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 35, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Bruce Boyer.

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