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Judicial candidates won't rock bench

Thomas Cunningham and Florence Foster each really want to be judge. But not bad enough to challenge an incumbent judge. That reluctance to rock the bench is what landed Cunningham and Foster in the race for Circuit Judge Group 30, a newly created position approved by the state Legislature last summer.

Both candidates say it wasn't until that new job materialized that they decided to run, even though both say they have harbored judicial ambitions for years.

"I feel we have a fine judiciary," Foster said. "I would never challenge an incumbent. I practice in all the divisions . . . it's just common sense."

Cunningham, too, spoke highly of his prospective colleagues, but said the new post had his name on it.

Cunningham and Foster were the top vote-getters in the primary September, ahead of Kem Toole, who had topped a local lawyer's preference poll. Toole is endorsing Cunningham.

Though constrained by ethical rules from discussing issues or each other, both candidates can and do speak of their own attri-butes. Foster touts her academic achievements and energy. Cunningham rolls out his 14 years of legal experience.

"I think in my race the big concern is and should be experience," Cunningham said. He recalled applying to the Judicial Nominating Commission for an open judge's seat about nine years ago and enduring question after question about why he wanted to be a judge so soon in his career.

"It made me realize, later, that I wasn't really ready," Cunningham said, adding that the comment did not reflect on Foster, who has been a licensed lawyer about five years.

Cunningham, 43, was a junior high English teacher in Virginia before going to law school in New York. He said he became interested in the legal profession from his father-in-law, a professor of business law in Michigan. Cunningham's own father was a bricklayer, and Cunningham is proud to be the first in his family to graduate from college.

Cunningham returned to Tampa where he attended college and worked as a part-time public defender for three years. In private practice since then, he has done criminal defense, including first-degree murder cases, family law and more than 100 adoptions, a practice area he developed after he adopted a child.

Foster, 36, whose father is a lawyer in a large Tampa firm, said her mother always told her she would make a good lawyer. After attending New College and graduating from the University of Missouri, she moved to Sarasota. She ran a furniture store until her first marriage ended, then attended Stetson University College of Law on a scholarship. She graduated in 1985.

Foster worked as an assistant public defender in Pinellas County for one year before becoming a law clerk to U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich for one year. Since then, she has been in general private practice with her husband, Robert Foster.

Both candidates see caseload control as a top challenge.

"You must be able to work your docket, but can't be rude or provide less than full hearing time," Cunningham said. "Good judges maintain decorum and respect without the docket backing up."

Foster also promises greater efficiency.