Political parties increasingly active in Tampa Bay judicial races

It was not allowed in the past, so judicial candidates could appear neutral, but court decisions have changed that.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith (left) was unseated by challenger Nancy Jacobs in a race that took on unusual political overtones.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith (left) was unseated by challenger Nancy Jacobs in a race that took on unusual political overtones. [ Courtesy of candidates ]
Published Oct. 8, 2022

In an example of a trend some political insiders consider worrying and others beneficial, both local Hillsborough County political parties are backing slates of candidates in this year’s judicial elections.

In Pinellas, the Republican Party, but not the Democrats, are also backing a judicial slate.

It was once illegal for parties to back judicial candidates in Florida, but court decisions have legalized it in much of the state, according to elections law expert Mark Herron.

Judicial candidates are supposed to remain strictly non-partisan. Regulations prohibit them from accepting campaign contributions or seeking endorsements from a party or even saying publicly what party they belong to.

The goal, said Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, is to insulate judges from party politics and from taking stands on political issues that could later be involved in their decisions.

But the court rulings said the parties can’t be prevented from saying which candidates they prefer.

In a slate card being mailed to voters, the Hillsborough Democratic Party advises voting “no” against retaining four of the five state Supreme Court justices on the Nov. 8 ballot — Charles T. Canady, John D. Couriel, Jamie Grosshans and Ricky Polston — and voting “yes” to retain Justice Jorge Labarga.

The first four are conservatives appointed by Republican governors; Democrats fear they would lean rightward on issues including abortion and gerrymandering. Labarga was appointed by former Gov. Lawton Chiles.

The Democrats also recommend voting against four of the appeals court judges on the ballot and in favor of the remaining four; and voting for Melissa Black in a county court race against Mike Isaak.

The Hillsborough County Republican Party, meanwhile, has the exact opposite recommendation in the same races on its web site.

The Pinellas County Republican Party also opposes Labarga and favors the other Supreme Court justices, but recommends in favor of all eight appeals judges.

Hillsborough Democratic Party Chair Ione Townsend defended the practice, saying voters often know little about judicial candidates and simply skip judicial races on the ballot. Party recommendations, she said, help them decide.

“We follow the law,” she said. “It’s legal, and the Republicans are doing it, too.”

But Lucinda Johnston, Pinellas Democratic chair, said she has resisted suggestions from some local Democrats to back a judicial slate.

“Personally, I don’t believe in parties endorsing judges,” she said. “Judges should not be partisan at all.”

Ficarrotta said the practice is increasing and “concerning.”

Mark Proctor, a Tampa political consultant who specializes in managing judicial campaigns, calls it an example of increasing partisan rancor in politics.

“The party can do what they want, but I don’t think they should,” he said.

Proctor said he even advises candidates he works for to write letters to partisan organizations that endorse them disclaiming the support.

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But he said the practice is becoming more common — both Hillsborough parties have backed judicial slates in the last couple of election cycles — “and they’re getting more prevalent, more aggressive about it.”

He cited the Hillsborough race in which Nancy Jacobs unseated circuit Judge Jared Smith in the Aug. 23 primary.

Reproductive rights advocates opposed Smith because of his ruling denying a minor an abortion. The race was unusually contentious and both local parties took sides.