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Latest Hillsborough judicial picks by DeSantis again include no Black people

Just five of the county’s 68 circuit or county judges are Black in a county in which Black people make up 18 percent of the population.
Ron DeSantis has appointed three new county judges to the Hillsborough Bench.
Ron DeSantis has appointed three new county judges to the Hillsborough Bench. [ JOE RAEDLE | Getty Images North America ]
Published Dec. 10, 2021|Updated Dec. 10, 2021

A second round of county court judge appointments in Hillsborough just announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis again includes no Black people, worsening what some local Black lawyers consider under-representation of African-Americans on the bench.

The new appointees are badly needed. A long-standing shortage of judges in Hillsborough has led to huge case backlogs in the lower-level courts that hear small-claims cases.

Last spring, the Legislature funded six new positions. DeSantis filled three plus an existing vacancy in September and announced appointees for the remaining three last week.

None of the seven appointees were Black, even though the Judicial Nominating Commission recommendations for the appointments included Black applicants. Two of the 18 recommended for the most recent appointments are Black.

Since DeSantis has been in office, Hillsborough’s 13th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission has recommended at least four Black candidates, and he has appointed one of them.

With the new appointments, two White lawyers and one Hispanic, the county will remain at five Black judges out of 68 in circuit and county courts, or just over 7 percent. The county population is 18 percent Black, according to Census figures.

All seven appointees are members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal advocacy group from which DeSantis routinely draws judicial appointees.

For aspiring lawyers, county court judgeships are the first rung on the ladder to appointment or election to higher courts.

Responding to email questions, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw reiterated her response concerning the September appointments -- “Judges are not appointed to ‘represent’ specific identity groups … Governor DeSantis believes in choosing the best candidate for the job, regardless of skin color or other immutable characteristics.”

But Lansing Scriven, former president of the county’s George Edgecomb Bar Association, a Black lawyers’ bar group, said under-representation of African-Americans on the Hillsborough bench matters.

“Justice must be fair, and equally important, it must be perceived to be fair,” he said. “It is difficult to achieve that perception when the judiciary does not reflect a broad cross-section of the community.”

The three new appointees are:

  • James Giardina, principal of The Consumer Rights Law Group, with undergraduate and law degrees from State University of New York at Buffalo, who is Hispanic.
  • Susan Lopez, a veteran Hillsborough assistant state attorney and graduate of Middlebury College and Suffolk University law school. She is of Spanish descent, but said she is considered White and non-Hispanic for purposes of her application.
  • Matthew Smith, of Tampa, an assistant statewide prosecutor and former Hillsborough chief assistant state attorney, a graduate of the Air Force Academy and Florida State University law school, who is White.
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