TAMPA — It’s a rule that Florida judges must run for re-election every six years. But in Hillsborough County, most of the time, no one bothers to challenge the incumbents.
When the April qualifying deadline came, 20 Hillsborough circuit and county judges drew no opposition and were re-elected automatically.
But two had challengers: Circuit Judges Steven Scott Stephens and Michael Scionti.
Neither judge appears to have done anything in particular to provoke a re-election fight. Both accept it as part of the reality of holding elected office.
“If there is a reason for voters to turn somebody out of office, they should have the chance to do that,” Stephens said.
The race between Stephens and Tampa lawyer Wendy DePaul may have sprung from a misunderstanding.
Both candidates recall meeting each other at a social event late last year. Amid a cacophonous crowd, there came questions about whether Stephens planned to run for re-election. He remembers mentioning that he might retire.
Word got around. In the ensuing weeks, DePaul and two others filed to run for Stephens’ seat.
“I told them I was thinking about it,” Stephens said. “I guess those were people whose confidence I shouldn’t have put any stock in.”
In January, Stephens filed for re-election. Two challengers joined other races. But DePaul, who was already in the thick of campaigning, remained.
“I’m as good in this race as any,” she said.
DePaul, 49, holds an accounting degree from Florida State University and a law degree from Stetson University College of Law. She has run her own firm since 2004, focusing primarily on family law, bankruptcy, foreclosure defense and debt settlement cases. She is a board member of Bay Area Legal Services, an organization that provides free legal help to the poor.
She has a campaign chest of $90,000, which includes about $70,000 of her own money.
She acknowledged it is difficult to challenge an incumbent.
“But that doesn’t mean incumbents shouldn’t receive opposition,” she said. “I really do think people should have a choice of who their judges are.”
DePaul’s record with the Florida Bar includes a 2012 disciplinary action for “minor misconduct.” It had to do with a client who paid her a retainer for a foreclosure defense. DePaul did not immediately start work on the case, and after it was administratively closed failed to ask if her client wanted to continue to pursue a counterclaim, the record states. She later admitted to “lack of diligence” and “failure to communicate” and received an admonishment.
Stephens, 62, joined the circuit bench in 2005, having been appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. He has spent time in the circuit’s family law, felony and civil divisions. For the past five years, he has been the judge who handles cases in what’s called the complex business litigation division.
He holds a Ph.D. in business, along with other advanced degrees in computer science and security. He has taught business classes at the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida.
A decade ago, he attracted criticism for his handling of cases in the family law division. A TV news report detailed a couple of cases in which people felt the judge treated them unfairly and accused him of flouting the law. The report mentioned a website, which features anonymous reviews of judges. Stephens was rated poorly.
“Early on, there were plenty of times I didn’t have a perception of all the things going on in the courtroom,” Stephens said. “You can’t do this job without disappointing people. ... But you learn to do the job in a way you won’t disappoint them more than necessary.”
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Judge Michael Scionti was a prosecutor and a defense attorney. He’s a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was elected twice to the Florida House of Representatives before being appointed as a State Department diplomat.
Elected to the bench in 2014, he has for the past three years presided over Veterans Treatment Court, a specialized division that allows military veterans accused of crimes to avoid conviction through a variety of programs that address mental health, substance abuse and other issues. Court officials from elsewhere in the country have sought Scionti’s help in crafting their veterans’ courts.
He faces a challenge from Ashley Ivanov, a Lithia attorney who specializes in estate planning, probate and guardian advocacy cases.
Initially, she filed to run for Stephens’ seat. She then made a brief challenge to Judge Nick Nazaretian before switching again just before the qualifying deadline to challenge Scionti. It’s unclear why.
Ivanov, 37, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Tampa Bay Times. A response to an email inquiry, which was signed “campaign committee,” said she had a busy schedule. It directed a reporter to her campaign website.
She has been a lawyer in Florida for five years. Her LinkedIn page notes that she worked for two years with the firm of Spano & Woody P.A., the law firm of U.S. Rep. Ross Spano. Before she came to Florida, Ivanov also worked for a Maryland-based business law firm, according to her LinkedIn page.
Scionti boasts the support of Public Defender Julianne Holt, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.
He said he has enjoyed being on the campaign trail.
“Campaigns, if you embrace them, can be a lot of fun,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information regarding Wendy DePaul’s disciplinary history with the Florida Bar.