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Hillsborough getting new judges, but Black judicial numbers still lag

With the new appointments, the county will remain at fewer than 8 percent Black judges, five out of 65.
Hillsborough County is finally getting six new judges in its understaffed county court division, which has been bogged down for years with huge caseloads and not enough judges.
Hillsborough County is finally getting six new judges in its understaffed county court division, which has been bogged down for years with huge caseloads and not enough judges. [ TIMES (2017) ]
Published Sep. 24

Hillsborough County is finally getting six new judges in its understaffed county court division, which has been bogged down for years with huge caseloads and not enough judges.

But the first batch of four new judges appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis — three of the six new positions plus one replacement — won’t improve what some legal system insiders say is a dearth of Black judges in the county.

DeSantis typically looks to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal advocacy group that advocates constitutional “textualism” and opposes what it considers liberal judicial activism, in appointing judges.

All four of DeSantis’s new Hillsborough appointees are Federalist Society members.

But with their addition, the county will remain at fewer than 8 percent Black judges, five out of 65. The new appointees include a white man, a white woman, one Hispanic and one Asian-Pacific Islander.

Hillsborough County is 18 percent Black, according to Census figures.

Since DeSantis has been in office, the 13th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, which nominates candidates for Hillsborough judgeships, has recommended at least three Black candidates, some more than once, for openings. So far, DeSantis has appointed one of them.

The state Supreme Court, which certifies the need for new judgeships, has said for years that Hillsborough needs more county judges.

The last new positions Hillsborough got were in 2006, said Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta. “Obviously, we’ve grown a lot since then.”

Hillsborough Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta.
Hillsborough Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta.

He said caseloads for the county civil court judges had grown to “scores of thousands of cases each,” and that’s before a crush of eviction cases expected to arise from the pandemic.

While circuit judges handle major crimes and lawsuits, county civil courts are “people’s courts” where individuals file small-claims cases, often representing themselves, on such matters as landlord-tenant disputes and windshield damage, Ficarrotta said.

For aspiring judges, county-level judgeships are the first rung on the ladder to higher court appointments or elections.

Before the new positions, Hillsborough had 17 county judges and 45 circuit judges.

The Supreme Court has approved four new county court judgeships for Hillsborough for several years, and this year added two more.

But the Legislature didn’t fund any new positions until last year, and the two it funded were then vetoed by DeSantis because of pandemic-related budget concerns.

State Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, a lawyer and member of the judicial nomination commission, said he’s been fighting since his 2018 election to get the new judgeships and is ecstatic to get all six. He said he hopes the remaining new positions will be filled by the end of the year.

“It took me a year and a half, but I got it done,” he said.

State Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia.
State Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia. [ FLORIDA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ]

Beltran disputed that the Hillsborough bench lacks diversity, citing numbers of women and Hispanics. More than half the 65 total judges are women, according to figures from Ficarrotta.

But Beltran said he looks for the best candidates, not demographic diversity, in choosing nominees.

“We (choose nominees) really without reference to race,” he said. “We look for the best people we can get. There’s no affirmative action involved.”

Ficarrotta said he values diversity on the bench — “It’s important that our bench reflect our community and our county” — but he had no comment on whether Hillsborough meets that standard.

Lack of Black judicial appointments by DeSantis is a longstanding concern, said Sean Shaw of Tampa, a former Democratic candidate for attorney general.

“It was so apparent in the Rick Scott era, but even more so under DeSantis,” Shaw said. “No Black person on the state Supreme Court, very few at the appeals level — at no level is representation of African-Ameircans appropriate.”

Sean Shaw, a former Democratic candidate for Florida Attorney General.
Sean Shaw, a former Democratic candidate for Florida Attorney General. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]

Responding to email questions, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw wrote, “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. For future judicial appointments, as always, the governor will consider all qualified candidates who are committed to upholding the rule of law.”

The new Hillsborough judges are:

  • Michael Hooi of Stichter, Riedel, Blain, & Postler, P.A.
  • Jeffrey Rich, a criminal defense lawyer in private practice.
  • Leslie Schultz-Kin, chief assistant attorney general and civil litigation bureau chief in the state attorney general’s Tampa office.
  • Joseph Tompkins, an assistant United States attorney for Florida’s Middle District.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com.