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In judge races, gender outweighing Bar rating

Published Oct. 12, 2005

When it comes to influencing judicial elections, Pinellas County's legal establishment has suffered more falls than a slippery supermarket floor.

In 1988, a survey of local lawyers rated two candidates as best qualified, but both lost at the polls. In 1990, three of four lawyers favored by their peers met defeat.

Then came September's primary, when the electorate voted for women every chance they got.

Female lawyers led in four of five judicial races, and are headed for runoffs Nov. 3. Two women nearly won outright against multiple male opponents. And two women led in their races despite abysmally low ratings by St. Petersburg Bar Association members.

Bar association president Doug Williamson called the results "shocking," saying Florida should start appointing judges instead of electing them.

Losing candidate Glenn Woodworth lamented: "Judges should be selected on the basis of qualifications and . . . track records. Not on the basis of anatomy."

Such reactions are more widespread than deep.

The Year of the Judicial Woman was anything but monolithic. Each race had individual twists. Viewing the election through a sweeping gender lens overlooks significant distinctions. For example:

Much of the criticism centers on Mary Jean McAllister, who won 41 percent of the vote for Pinellas County judge. In her 10-year legal career, McAllister has represented only two clients in Pinellas courts, public records indicate. The bulk of her earned income last year came from a friend. Her campaign literature says she lectures at Stetson Law College, but school officials said she spoke there only once, after inviting herself.

Williamson and others also questioned the qualifications of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court candidate Bonnie S. Newton, who registered an 83 percent disapproval rating in the Bar's poll. Newton says she has handled 600 trials, but critics contend she is distorting her record.

While faulting Newton's experience, her detractors often fail to note that her runoff opponent, James Berfield, has barely been in court lately for any reason.

Circuit Court candidates Marsha Glisson and Nelly Khouzam tied or outscored their male opponents in the Bar poll. People who griped about female success quickly back off when asked whether Glisson and Khouzam would make good judges.

The National Organization for Women endorsed every female judicial candidate but Glisson. Glisson apparently flunked NOW's litmus test on abortion rights.

NOW saved its greatest scorn for Charles Cope, Khouzam's runoff opponent. Cope once served on the advisory board of Pinellas Right to Life, yet won a temporary endorsement from NOW two years ago in another judicial race. NOW activists accuse Cope of hiding an anti-abortion past, which he denies.

Those who bemoan female success acknowledged that many men have won judgeships despite low ratings from their colleagues. In 1990, every candidate whose name appeared first on the ballot won.

Woodworth said he foresaw his impending demise while on the campaign trail.

"Every opportunity I had, I would walk up to a female and ask, "If you are in the voting booth, voting for a judge, and you don't know anything about the candidates, and you see two male names and one female, who would you vote for?' " Woodworth said. "Without exception, well over 300 women said, "The woman of course. . . . Women are more trustworthy.' "

He and others also credited Pinellas NOW for stoking the fires with an aggressive grass roots campaign. NOW held candidate rallies and volunteers handed out literature at polling places.

Political activism soared after last year's confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, said Kay Tucker, head of NOW's political action committee. When law professor Anita Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her, Hill underwent what many perceived to be a severe grilling.

"Women who had never talked about political issues really got involved, because almost every one of us has been sexually harassed," Tucker said.

On primary day, male and female voters responded in droves to NOW's literature, she said. "Across the board, people are ready for a change."

When election results rolled in that night, it showed.


In 1984, Mary Jean McAllister lost a runoff for county judge after opponents challenged her experience and her connection to St. Petersburg osteopath Judith Kline.

McAllister had represented only two clients in Pinellas courts during her two-year legal career. Almost her entire $37,000 income came from Kline, with whom McAllister owned a house in northeast St. Petersburg. In 1982, two years before the election, Kline pleaded guilty to felony charges of illegally prescribing drugs. McAllister was working for Kline at the time, but was not implicated in the 1982 investigation.

This August, McAllister, 49, won 41 percent of primary votes for a county judgeship that pays $80,354. Her literature says she has represented clients in "tort and criminal trial matters." Yet public records indicate she has handled only one Pinellas trial: a 1983 drunken driving case in which her client was convicted.

McAllister says she has "earned a national reputation as an arbiter/judge of securities fraud and commercial disputes." During the past six years, McAllister says, she has been a staff attorney and arbitrator for the National Association of Securities Dealers, an arbitrator for the New York Stock Exchange and an adjunct professor at Tampa College.

This experience would translate well to a county judgeship, she says. "I have spent thousands of hours listening to testimonial evidence and reviewing pleadings, documents, legal briefs and other submissions. I have decided questions of liability, admissibility and damages."

McAllister says she earned up to $75,000 a year in her securities and arbitration work, until she needed to devote more time to her private life because of illness in the family.

Her 1991 financial form shows she earned $3,500 as an arbitrator and $4,200 as a professor. The bulk of her earned income, $27,000, came as counsel for Judith Kline's osteopathic business.

"It's frightening to consider Mary Jean McAllister on the bench because of her lack of experience in a courtroom," says Shawn Burklin, vice president of the Pinellas County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. "We don't endorse candidates. However, if you spoke with individual members, without exception, no one would be comfortable with her as a judge."

McAllister's opponent, Clearwater attorney Paul Levine, 37, was a prosecutor for five years and now pursues an active criminal defense practice.

He, and others, have accused McAllister of exaggerating her qualifications. For example, they point to campaign literature that says she "lectures" at Stetson Law College. Actually, says professor Charles Waygood, McAllister spoke to one class in 1991 after calling the school and offering to speak.

She discussed securities arbitration, Waygood says. "The students seemed interested. And she had lots of practical things to say."

McAllister declined a detailed interview about her experience or sources of income. "The electorate has spoken. I refuse to be involved in muckraking," she wrote in a letter.

But one noted St. Petersburg attorney came to her defense.

Gardner Beckett, long-time lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, says he doesn't know much about McAllister's background but likes her proposals for judicial reform. McAllister says judges should unclog the court system by sending more lawsuits to arbitration and by speeding up pre-trial procedures.

"We have plenty of judges who have tried cases. And they are saying they should be elected so they will keep right on doing what they've been doing," Beckett says. "We can afford to have one judge looking toward reform."


The circuit bench needs more women, says Clearwater attorney Charles Cope. But not for the seat he wants to fill.

"I'm the only judicial candidate who has extensive jury trial experience in the criminal justice system and in the civil justice system."

Cope, 43, was a prosecutor for six years and has handled hundreds of civil and criminal cases since then, court records show.

His opponent, 33-year-old Nelly Khouzam, is young for a judicial candidate. But she draws considerable praise from her peers. Khouzam was "highly approved" by 63 percent of Pinellas lawyers voting in the Bar's poll. Cope was "highly approved" by 35 percent. The position pays $90,399 a year.

When Khouzam was 11, her family, which was Catholic, fled Egypt to avoid war and religious persecution, she said. She couldn't speak English, but her father forced her to learn by forbidding the children to speak their native French at home.

"He would make us go to the library to read books and write book reports," Khouzam says. "Later, we found out he never read them, it was just for practice."

At 16, she entered the University of Florida after skipping a grade. After law school, she clerked for two years at the 2nd District Court of Appeal and joined Fowler White Gillen Boggs Villareal & Banker, one of the area's largest law firms. She resigned two years ago to enter small firm practice in Clearwater.

Cope faults Khouzam's shortage of trial experience. Pinellas court records indicate that she has settled several lawsuits, and is representing clients in ongoing suits. And her 1991 financial statement shows she earned $57,200 in legal fees. But none of the suits she filed has gone to trial, according to Pinellas records.

However, Don Bulleit, managing partner at Fowler White, says Khouzam litigated more than a dozen major trials for the firm. She is not listed on county computers, he said, because clients typically asked for senior partners to file the suit, when younger lawyers in fact did the work.

In the primaries, NOW not only endorsed Khouzam but actively opposed Cope. Their animosity dates back to 1990, when Cope ran unsuccessfully for another circuit judgeship.

NOW endorsed him after an interview, but "unendorsed" him a month before the election after discovering a brochure listing him on the advisory board of Pinellas Right to Life, an anti-abortion group.

By law, judicial candidates are not supposed to express views on controversial subjects. Because NOW won't support a candidate who opposes abortion rights, their interviewers tried to ferret out how candidates stood without asking the direct question.

Based on Cope's responses, "We assumed he was for reproductive freedom," says NOW board member Jeannie Richardson. "He tricked us."

Cope denies any deception. He remembers being asked if he belonged to any organizations contrary to NOW's agenda, like the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. "I said I didn't belong to the yacht club," he says.

In fact, Cope says he never belonged to Pinellas Right to Life. He served on the advisory board only because he was giving legal advice to women who wanted to put babies up for adoption, he says. He resigned from that board before running for office.

Cope has known controversy in the past.

In 1979, he was lead prosecutor in a celebrated murder case. Half brothers William Jent and Earnest Miller were sentenced to die after a jury convicted them of bludgeoning a woman to death and burning her in Pasco County.

After the men served eight years on death row, U.S. District Judge George C. Carr ordered a new trial, saying prosecutors had twice suppressed important evidence.

One document was a sheriff's report that could have undermined the credibility of a key prosecution witness. The other evidence involved witnesses who might have contradicted the prosecution's theory of the case.

"By withholding such favorable evidence, the state has demonstrated a callous and deliberate disregard for the fundamental principles of truth and fairness that underlie our criminal justice system," Carr wrote.

Coming eight years after the original trial, Carr's decision made a new trial difficult. Witnesses had recanted their testimony. One witness had died; others had moved. In a deal negotiated by Cope's successors, Miller and Jent pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and were released from prison based on the time they already had served.

To this day, Cope said he is convinced he put away two vicious killers. He notes that several other appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, had upheld the prosecution's case. And he disputes the validity of Carr's ruling, saying the judge acted without even listening to the prosecution's side.


St. Petersburg lawyer Tom McCoun, 41, is no stranger to death row. He's known for taking on time-consuming death penalty cases, at the trial and appellate level, often without pay.

McCoun has considerable experience as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. Even his opponent, Marsha Glisson, says McCoun would "do an excellent job" as a judge.

"I just feel I have something unique to offer," Glisson says. She is referring to her specialty in marital and family law. The Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court has 35 judges, five of them women, and none of the women serves in the family law division, which rules over divorce and custody issues.

McCoun and Glisson scored a 76 percent "highly approve" rating in the Bar's poll _ the highest scores of any candidates. Then Glisson went out and swamped her three male opponents.

"There's a lot of dissatisfaction with the voting public," Glisson says. "It's spilling over into the polling place with the feeling that we need to do something different here."

McCoun finds that frustrating. "No other candidate has done as much as I in the area of civil liberties," McCoun says. "The most discouraging thing was the apparent willingness of people to vote on one factor: gender."

Glisson, 50, was a legal pioneer in Pasco County _ the first female member of the West Pasco Bar Association and later its first female president. Yet she was the only female judicial candidate not endorsed by NOW.

NOW's Kay Tucker said the group had "much internal debate" about whether Glisson supported abortion rights. Glisson declined to elaborate on her views, but says, "NOW will not endorse any candidate if she or he is not pro-choice."

Glisson also took a hit when NOW questioned her about a Florida Supreme Court study that described widespread bias against women in the court system. Glisson told NOW that she, personally, had never met discrimination.


More than any primary, the race for Group 20 judgeship demonstrated the disparity between lawyer and voter views of candidates. Glenn Woodworth, a former president of the St. Petersburg Bar Association, was "highly approved" by 72 percent of lawyers who voted in the Bar's poll. Yet he finished last in a three-way race.

Seminole attorney Bonnie Newton earned a "disapprove" rating from 83 percent of lawyers voting. She nearly won the election outright.

Newton, 49, calls herself an "internationally known family and matrimonial lawyer." Like Glisson, Newton says she could bring experience and a female perspective to the family law division.

"None of the six sitting male judges have experience with spouse abuse, they have not tried to collect child support," Newton says. "I am a single parent and have litigated within the family division as a client and as an attorney."

Newton drew criticism on the campaign trail by saying she has taken part in 600 trials _ about one per week over her 13-year career. To many lawyers, the word "trial" implies civil or criminal litigation, with weeks of preparation, pretrial hearings and courtroom showdowns that often involve juries.

"Domestic relations lawyers try cases against each other. I've done it for 20 years," Clearwater attorney John Fernandez says. "I don't know Bonnie Newton. I've not seen her in seminars. I've not run into her anywhere. For this woman to say 600 trials and I don't know who she is, is highly unlikely."

Newton says her trial count includes numerous divorces and child abuse cases. Those cases include preparation, witnesses, evidence and opposing lawyers, she said.

According to the computer that tracks Pinellas court action, Newton filed only eight divorces in 1991, a low figure for a family law specialist. Glisson, for example, averages about eight divorce filings a month in Pasco County, court records indicate.

Newton says the Pinellas computer understates her caseload, because many times she will reopen an existing divorce to seek more child support or change custody.

Her financial statement lists a 1991 income of $31,172, but at times, she has had trouble paying taxes on time. In 1987, Florida filed a tax lien against her business, which she later paid off. In 1990, the IRS filed a tax lien that she later satisfied.

And this May, the IRS filed a lien for $4,249.98 in taxes that were due last December. That lien still is outstanding, according to court records.

The liens covered employee withholding taxes or worker's compensation taxes, Newton said. And the current lien is a mistake, she says.

The IRS agreed in July that the "lien was filed in error," she says. "We called several times, and they said they would take care of it."

In interviews, all 10 judicial candidates were asked if they had ever been reprimanded by the Florida Bar, publicly or privately. All except Newton said they had not been reprimanded. She declined to answer directly.

While some lawyers challenged Newton's claim to 600 trials, few noted that her opponent, James Berfield, has barely appeared in court at all in the past 10 years. Most voters in the Bar poll did not know Berfield well; those who did gave him a 58 percent "disapprove" rating.

"I don't have that much contact with attorneys," Berfield, 57, said. From 1981 to 1989, he served on the Clearwater City Commission. Since then, he said, he has handled mostly wills and real estate law for corporate clients, whom he declined to identify.

His campaign stresses his two years as a traffic court magistrate, which he said shows a judicial temperament. "Most people who come before you have never been in the judicial system before," Berfield says.


Men led in only one judicial primary. Of course, no woman was running.

St. Petersburg attorney Walt Logan, 49, and New Port Richey attorney Craig Villanti, 40, scored highly in the Bar's poll and drew praise from their peers.

The bulk of Logan's recent practice has been representing former Clearwater Mayor Gabe Cazares in taking on the Church of Scientology.

"Logan is an absolutely dedicated professional person with impeccable integrity," says Glenn Woodworth, the loser in another race. "If there was one single bone in his closet, much less a skeleton, they would have found it."

Villanti is known for considerable pro bono work in Pasco County, including the creation of HELP, which offers free legal advice to the elderly. He's hard to beat in Pasco.

"Every time I walked up to people (in New Port Richey), the immediate question was, "You aren't running against Craig, are you?' " Woodworth says. "I started collaring Craig at these meetings and asking him, "Could I walk around with you so you could tell these people I'm not running against you?' "

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

Bar poll

(highly approve, Voting

Candidate approve, disapprove) results

Group 3 Circuit Judge

Marsha Glisson 76%, 14%, 10% 49%

Tom McCoun 76%, 20%, 4% 22%

Larry Sandefer 27%, 47%, 25% 15%

William Slicker 24%, 19%, 57% 14%

Group 20 Circuit Judge

Bonnie Newton 8%, 9%, 83% 49%

James Berfield 19%, 19%, 58% 26%

Glenn Woodworth 72%, 16%, 12% 25%

Group 23 Circuit Judge

Nelly Khouzam 63%, 25%, 11% 40%

Charles Cope 35%, 35%, 29% 32%

Raymond Conklin 10%, 20%, 69% 28%

Group 29 Circuit Judge

Craig Villanti 65%, 23%, 10% 42%

Walt Logan 52%, 29%, 18% 32%

Robert Jagger 41%, 28%, 30% 26%

County Judge

Mary Jean McAlister 5%, 3%, 92% 41%

Paul Levine 63%, 26%, 11% 32%

Sylvia Barr 25%, 22%, 51% 27%