Some say Hillsborough's judiciary looks much as it did decades ago, but others note more women and Hispanics.
How you view the Hillsborough County judiciary depends on your perspective.
In some ways, it doesn't look very different from how it did two decades ago, when no blacks were judges on the circuit bench. Today, there is one.
To Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez, it's a far cry from when he first put on the robe in 1981. It was all male then. Today, the Hillsborough bench includes 14 women.
For some would-be judges, joining this exclusive club seems to be more about who you know than what you know.
"Tampa's a political city," said attorney Carl Hayes, who unsuccessfully sought a judicial appointment in 1999. "I love it. But the truth is the truth: If you're not part of the clique right now, you can't expect to be appointed."
Last month, Gov. Jeb Bush complained about a lack of diversity among the judicial candidates recommended by local commissions.
Bush says he wants to see more female and minority candidates so the judiciary better reflects local communities. Some members of local judicial nominating commissions countered that they merely recommend the most qualified candidates.
How have minorities and women fared in Hillsborough?
A Times analysis of appointments over the past five years reveals:
While women comprise 27 percent of the more than 60,000 lawyers in good standing with the Florida Bar, 18 percent of judicial applicants in Hillsborough were women. In the most recent group of 15 lawyers who applied, one was a woman.
Although blacks _ including a former judge and a sitting judge _ have been nominated, seven out of eight times none were appointed.
Hispanics have fared far better. About 17 percent of Hillsborough County is Hispanic, but 32 percent of the judges are Hispanic.
Although most judges are elected, the governor appoints judges when there is a vacancy or when the Legislature creates a new seat. He must select from candidates nominated by nine-member local commissions, appointed by the governor, the Florida Bar and the commissions themselves. Hillsborough's currently includes a veterinarian.
An applicant must have been a lawyer for at least five years and be registered to vote and a resident of the county where he or she applies.
Commission members serve four-year terms that are staggered so the committee regularly changes.
Hillsborough's commission typically screens 15 to 35 applicants. The commission then draws up a list of those they wish to interview, usually fewer than half the applicants.
After interviews, the commission nominates up to six candidates. The governor makes the final selection from that list.
In the courthouse, rumors begin circulating, even before all the applications are in, about who will be appointed. Often, the rumors prove true.
But JNC chairman Joseph Kinman Jr., a lawyer at Shackleford, Farrior, Stallings & Evans, calls that "bunk."
"The committee that I'm chairperson of has no predetermined agenda, and we base our nominations to the governor on the quality of the applicants," he said.
Others say politics play a part.
Barbara Pittman, a black lawyer and sports agent, was chairwoman of the JNC in 1995.
"I found out when I was on the commission there was some politics involved," she said. "Not necessarily politics in Tallahassee. Local politics. Who you know, and who you know that knows someone."
That can be discouraging, she said. "During my stint on the commission, a lot of the comments I heard from women and minorities were they thought they didn't have much of a chance of getting out of the application process and getting their names sent up to the governor," she said. "They had the perception _ I hate to use the term _ good ol' boy network."
Some recent applicants say the process surprised them.
"I am embarrassed to admit my naivete, but I confess that when I put my application in, based on my credentials, I thought I should at least get an interview," said Stephanie Young, a former FDLE major-crimes supervisor who is now a civil lawyer at Carlton Fields. That didn't happen.
Personal injury lawyer Suzanne Cannella Warner, who also did not get an interview, said she was disappointed to learn that none of her references were called.
"I was told by some upstanding people in the community, "It's not your time,' " she said. She took that to mean she was not the political pick of the moment.
Don Miller, a criminal defense lawyer and former assistant county attorney and prosecutor, has applied even though he never expected the committee to call him for an interview.
"My philosophy is if no blacks apply, no one will be appointed," said Miller, who is black. "I don't have any hopes that I'll make an initial cut or anything _ I just want to make sure that at least one black person says "I tried.' "
The commission has seven men and two women. None are black.
The record of black appointments is mixed. It is widely estimated that 2 percent of Florida lawyers are black. In Hillsborough, 15.9 percent of the candidates nominated to the governor in the past five years were black. None were appointed, including former County Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell and sitting County Judge Marva Crenshaw, who applied to the circuit bench.
In November, the local nominating commission recommended four white men and two Hispanic white men to the governor for a County Court seat. In February, the commission is scheduled to interview seven white men, two Hispanic white men and one black man for another County Court seat.
Carol Licko, general counsel to Bush, said she sees encouraging signs of improvement by local nominating commissions.
At a recent Florida Bar-sponsored JNC conference, proposals included working with minority lawyer associations to make sure word of each open judgeship gets out. The commissions also are being strongly encouraged to interview all who apply.
"We have found it makes a big difference," Licko said. "Sometimes people present themselves completely differently in an interview."
Circuit Judge Debra Behnke, who was elected after she failed to get an appointment, has a suggestion for taking the potential for politics out of the process: Local commissions should be composed of people from a different judicial circuit.
Circuit Judge Perry Little, appointed to the county bench in 1977 and the circuit bench in 1993, is the only black among Hillsborough's 35 circuit judges.
"There have been peaks and valleys," he said. "We've had as many as two (black) circuit judges and as many as two (black) county judges."
Little is rare in another way: He has chosen to stay in juvenile court, considered one of the least desirable assignments for a judge. He said it's important that the children who appear before him, about 40 percent of whom are minorities, see a face like his wearing the robe.
"I don't see color when they're there, but I can't help but think they at least may feel a little more comfortable," the judge said. "It's just one of those intangible things that's important. Indirectly, they can see that at least I made it."
_ Times researchers John Martin and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Sue Carlton can be reached at (813) 226-3346 or carltonsptimes.com.
Who's on the bench in Hillsborough
Here's a glimpse of the current face of the Hillsborough County bench and judicial appointments since 1995 compared to the county's population.
Circuit Bench: 35 Judges
0 Black Females (0 percent)
1 Black Male (2.8 percent)
8 White Females (22.8 percent)
1 Hispanic White Female (2.8 percent)
18 White Males (51.4 percent)
7 Hispanic White Males (20 percent)
County Bench: 12 Judges
1 Black Female (8.3 percent)
0 Black Males (0 percent)
3 White Females (25 percent)
1 Hispanic White Female (8.3 percent)
1 White Male (8.3 percent)
6 Hispanic White Males (50 percent)
Appointed to the Hillsborough bench since 1995:
0 black females
0 black males
0 white females
1 Hispanic white female
2 white males
4 Hispanic white males
Percentage of lawyers who have applied to the Hillsborough bench since 1995:
4.3 percent black female
6.76 percent black male
9.4 percent white female
3.9 percent Hispanic white female
60.12 percent white male 12.8 percent Hispanic white male
Percentage sent to the governor by the local Judicial Nominating Commission:
13.5 percent black female
3.1 percent black male
2.07 percent white female
5.2 percent Hispanic white female
57.2 percent white male
18.7 percent Hispanic white male
+ Not shown is 2.3% by other men
Sources: 1998 CACI Marketing Systems and 1990 census; Hillsborough County judiciary; The 13thCircuit Judicial Nominating Commission.