Hillsborough judges: The Times editorial board recommendations
Times recommends Schifino, Scionti, Daniel, Green, Stephens and Yanger for circuit, county judge
The courthouse in downtown Tampa.
The courthouse in downtown Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published July 18, 2020

Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge

Judges in circuit court preside over felony criminal cases, estates and juvenile matters, and handle civil disputes involving more than $30,000. Circuit judges are elected to six-year terms and paid $165,509 annually. Judicial races are nonpartisan and open to all voters. If no candidate wins a majority in the Aug. 18 primary, the top two vote-getters face off in the general election Nov. 3.

Group 9: John Schifino

John Schifino
John Schifino [ Courtesy John Schifino campaign ]

John Schifino’s legal experience and professional and civic involvement make him the standout in this race. His background and demeanor well suit him to manage circuit court.

Schifino, 54, has practiced law for 25 years, handling a range of general business matters, from contracts and employment disputes to environmental and intellectual property litigation. Schifino’s range as a litigator, and reputation for being prepared, would give him a strong courtroom presence from day one. Schifino has also been heavily involved in his profession and community, serving as president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association and working with local school and youth sports groups. He has demonstrated a commitment to raise the legal standards in the circuit and his charitable work endows him with a grasp of the diverse county.

Kelly Ayers, 52, is also an experienced litigator who has handled a range of civil, criminal and family law over her 26-year career. Her daily presence in the courtroom gives Ayers a firm grip on how to manage people and a heavy caseload. Ayers has also donated her time and professional services to indigent clients and been active with students and youth organizations.

Schifino, though, brings a rich mix of credentials and commitment to his profession. He is widely praised for his exacting standards, listening skills and open, respectful demeanor. Schifino would be a role model in the courtroom who would instill public confidence in the judiciary. The Tampa Bay Times recommends John Schifino for Hillsborough Circuit Judge, Group 9.

Group 19: Michael J. Scionti

Michael Scionti
Michael Scionti [ Times files ]

The incumbent, Michael J. Scionti, has excelled in every position of public trust afforded him, and he deserves another term.

Scionti, 51, is a Tampa native who has served as a prosecutor, state representative, Army officer and U.S. diplomat. His political, legal and military experience give him a uniquely rounded view of the impact that government has on everyday lives. Elected in 2014, Scionti has used his military experience to serve a critical need by presiding over Hillsborough’s Veterans Treatment Court. A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps, Scionti understands the difficulties that many veterans face, and the patience and clear direction he shows has helped many navigate the judicial system.

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His opponent, 37-year-old Ashley Ivanov, is a probate and estate planning attorney who has practiced law for a decade. Ivanov was admitted to practice law in 2010 in Maryland and in 2015 in Florida. She founded her own firm in 2018.

Scionti brings a wealth of experience to the courtroom and is comfortable working in the public eye. He is both understanding and decisive, and he brings a level of engagement and energy that has strengthened the local judiciary. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Michael J. Scionti for Hillsborough Circuit Judge, Group 19.

Group 30: Helene Daniel

Helene Daniel
Helene Daniel [ HUTH&BOOTH | Courtesy Helene Daniel campaign ]

Both candidates in this race have the personality to connect well in the courtroom, but Helene Daniel stands out for the professional and life experience she would bring to the job.

Daniel, 60, has practiced a wide range of civil and criminal law since being admitted to the Florida Bar in 1986. She has handled family law, juvenile matters and insurance cases, and since 2001 has focused on the health care industry, dealing with everything from personal injury and medical malpractice to regulatory compliance, patient privacy and contracting issues.

Daniel has also owned her own practice since 2014, and her wide litigation experience and business background make her well suited to preside over the complex matters in circuit court. She knows how to juggle a heavy caseload, and is mindful of the costs that court delays can force on litigants. Daniel is a past president of the Hillsborough Association for Women Lawyers, and she holds an AV Preeminent Rating by Martindale-Hubbell, considered the gold standard of peer reviews held by only about 10 percent of all attorneys.

Her challenger, Danny Alvarez, was in private practice before joining the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in 2017 as communications chief and later special projects manager. The 46-year old was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2008 after service as a U.S. Army infantry officer and five years in sales. Alvarez has shown his commitment to public service through a variety of capacities.

Daniel, though, has far more relevant experience in the courtroom. Brought to the U.S. from France as a child, she learned a new language and culture and has given back to her community. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Helene Daniel for Hillsborough Circuit Judge, Group 30.

Group 31: Greg Green

Greg Green
Greg Green [ HUTH&BOOTH | Courtesy Greg Green campaign ]

Voters have three strong choices in this race, all of whom are well qualified to hold judicial office. But Greg Green’s broad legal experience, community involvement and genuine, open demeanor make him the most attractive candidate.

Green, 46, began his legal career in 1999 as an assistant state attorney. He later practiced criminal defense and prosecuted termination of parental rights cases for the Florida Attorney General’s office. Green returned to private practice in 2007, focusing on family law, and opened his own law firm in 2016. He practices mostly in state court throughout the Tampa Bay region, handling divorces, paternity actions, domestic violence injunctions and child support cases.

Green’s mix of criminal and civil work and the demands of his private practice well prepare him for the caseloads of circuit court. Beyond his legal experience, Green has contributed enormously to his community, working as a child protection advocate, youth sports coach and mentor with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

Like Green, challenger Gary Dolgin has also previously sought judicial office. Over his 30-year career, Dolgin has served as an assistant state attorney and public defender, and since 1993 has owned his own firm, where he specializes in family law. Dolgin, 56, is board-certified in his field, reflecting his commitment to high professional standards. He is active in the community, and he would bring intelligence and judgment to the bench. Scott Bonavita, 50, a former prosecutor, has owned his own firm since 2012, handling a range of business law. He is also a certified court mediator.

Green seems best capable of pulling the double-duty judges face of managing both the law and the personalities in the courtroom. His community service is a labor of building self-confidence, and there is no short need of that in the judicial system. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Greg Green for Hillsborough Circuit Judge, Group 31.

Group 39: Steven Scott Stephens

Steven Scott Stephens
Steven Scott Stephens [ Steven Scott Stephens ]

The incumbent, Steven Scott Stephens, has served capably in various trial divisions during his 15 years on the bench. His judicial experience, and contributions to the administration of the courts system, warrant him another term.

Stephens, 62, was appointed to the circuit court bench in 2005 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. He has presided over the circuit’s family law, felony and civil divisions, and for the past five years has handled complex business litigation. Stephens holds a Ph.D. in business, in addition to advanced degrees in computer science and engineering. Prior to joining the Hillsborough circuit, he was a deputy chief judge of state compensation claims and a faculty member at the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa and Stetson University. He is a published author on the trial court and Florida family law.

Wendy Joy DePaul, 49, is a graduate of Florida State University and Stetson University College of Law who was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1997. Her practice includes a mix of family law, bankruptcy and foreclosure matters. DePaul’s accounting background would be a plus as a circuit judge. She also has been heavily involved in providing free legal assistance to the poor, reflecting a sense of fairness and commitment that is central to the legal profession.

There is no reason, though, to replace Stephens on the bench. Aside from managing cases, Stephens has also assisted the courts system on issues related to technology and judicial management — dry matters, perhaps, but essential parts of keeping the wheels of justice humming, especially as the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the use of remote communications. He is an asset in and out of the courtroom. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Steven Scott Stephens for Hillsborough Circuit Judge, Group 39.

Hillsborough County Court Judge

Judges in county court preside over misdemeanor criminal cases, traffic offenses and civil disputes involving $30,000 or less. County court judges are elected to six-year terms and paid $156,377 annually. Judicial races are nonpartisan and open to all voters.

Group 7: Bill Yanger

Bill Yanger
Bill Yanger [ Courtesy Bill Yanger campaign ]

Bill Yanger is the class of the field in this four-way race.

Yanger, 59, has handled virtually every type of case in his 34-year legal career, from criminal cases and commercial law to complex federal litigation. His breadth of experience in state and federal court gives him a solid understanding of how judges must conduct themselves. A sole practitioner, he also brings a work ethic and an appreciation for timely rulings.

Yanger’s range as an attorney and his comfort in the courtroom make a perfect fit to manage the bustle of county court. He is smart and respectful, and his listening skills and disarming nature could reassure litigants already on the edge. Often called “the people’s court,” for its handling of minor crimes and claims, county court is for many their first or only experience with the judicial system. Yanger understands the qualities a county judge needs. And he would set an example for attorneys who practice before him.

Rickey “Rick” Silverman, 57, a top-rated traffic attorney, has deep experience in county court and the personal skills to be effective on the bench. He knows the balancing act county judges face in showing both patience and the need for moving a docket. Monique Scott, 38, was a Tampa police officer and public school teacher before beginning a legal career in 2013, working mostly as an assistant state attorney. Nancy L. Jacobs, 59, is a former Hillsborough prosecutor who has owned her own practice since 1993, handling family law, criminal defense and estates. She has provided free legal services on behalf of veterans, animal welfare groups and youth organizations.

Yanger is widely lauded for not only his legal skills, but civic contributions to school, youth sports and other groups that give him a keen perspective on this community. He is regarded as an uncommonly decent person whose fairness and integrity embodies the meaning of justice. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Bill Yanger for Hillsborough County Court Judge, Group 7.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news