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Hillsborough circuit, county court judge: Times editorial board recommendations
There are two circuit court seats and one county court seat up for grabs.
Outside of the Hillsborough County courthouse.
Outside of the Hillsborough County courthouse. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jul. 22

Hillsborough County 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 $182,060 annually, as of July 1. Judicial races are nonpartisan and open to all voters.

Related: Read the Times recommendations in other races.

Group 6: Wesley Tibbals

Wesley Tibbals
Wesley Tibbals [ handout ]

The incumbent, Wesley Tibbals, has been a leader in Hillsborough’s court system, and voters should give him another term.

Tibbals, 49, earned his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Florida before entering private practice. He handled a range of labor, business and other civil matters for nearly 16 years before then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to the circuit court in 2015. Elected without opposition the following year, Tibbals quickly earned the respect of lawyers and fellow judges. He serves as the associate administrative judge in the Family Law division, where he works with Hillsborough’s chief judge to address any problems that arise. Lawyers and Tibbal’s colleagues describe him as fair and hard-working, a role model to younger lawyers who expertly handles his court.

His challenger, Belinda Noah, earned her law degree from the Florida State University College of Law and advanced degrees from Widener University School of Law in Delaware in areas related to health care and intellectual property. A Florida native, Noah, 68, has worked for state and federal agencies handling administrative matters, and as a private practitioner, has represented clients on environmental, bankruptcy, health and contract law. Noah said she would use her legal experience to focus especially on helping young people in the criminal justice system.

Tibbals, though, already brings an exacting eye and a conscientious streak to his role as judge. When the outbreak of COVID-19 forced the state’s court system to suspend most in-person proceedings, Tibbals taught other judges in the circuit how the online conferencing platform Zoom could get them back in business. Tibbals takes the job seriously, and that professionalism is essential for maintaining public faith in the judiciary. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Wesley Tibbals for Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge, Group 6.

Group 37: Jared Smith

Jared Smith
Jared Smith [ CANDIDATE | Handout ]

Judge Jared Smith is lauded for his knowledge of the law and the respect he shows litigants in his court. But Smith’s ruling against a teenager in an abortion-related case raises concerns about his judgment. We still find him the strongest candidate in the race.

Smith, 47, earned his law degree in 2000 from Washburn University before clerking for the Kansas Supreme Court and later serving as a special assistant U.S. attorney in Texas and Florida, prosecuting civilian crimes committed on military installations, including at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Smith worked in private practice from 2006 to 2017, when then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to the county bench. In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Smith to the circuit bench, where he presides over family court.

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Smith made headlines in January after the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed his decision in a case involving a minor seeking an abortion. Smith denied a request by the 17-year-old for a judicial waiver to obtain an abortion without her parents’ consent. In a 2-1 ruling of the three-judge panel, the appeals court said Smith abused his discretion by finding that the teenager failed to demonstrate the maturity, intelligence and other qualities to make the decision.

While Smith’s decision is confidential, and he declined to discuss it with the Tampa Bay Times, citing ethical constraints, the appeals court cited parts of the order. The appeals court found the teen met the standard for a waiver, and noted several instances where Smith seemed to downplay or mischaracterize her maturity.

Smith’s decision is troubling, but on the whole, he’s still a stronger choice. Challenger Nancy L. Jacobs, a former state prosecutor, earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Miami. She has operated her own practice since 1993, specializing in criminal defense and family law. Jacobs has provided extensive, free and low-cost legal services to clients who cannot afford it, and has long been involved in animal rescue and welfare.

It’s concerning that Smith continues to stand by his order. The humility to acknowledge and learn from the mistake would go a long way. But we don’t consider this single ruling disqualifying. His broad legal experience, and the testament to his professionalism by a wide range of trial lawyers, justify giving him another chance.

The Tampa Bay Times recommends Jared Smith for Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge, Group 37.

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 $172,015 annually, as of July 1. Judicial races are nonpartisan and open to all voters. If no candidate wins a majority in the Aug. 23 primary, the top two vote-getters face off in the general election Nov. 8.

Group 14: Linette “Starr” Brookins

Linette "Starr" Brookins
Linette "Starr" Brookins [ handout ]

There are several particularly strong candidates in this four-person race, but Linette “Starr” Brookins takes the nod for the depth of her legal experience and community involvement. She seems well-suited for the common touch needed in county court.

Brookins, 36, graduated from the University of Tampa and the George Washington University School of Law. A Tampa native, she represented the state of Florida as a trial attorney in juvenile cases and worked as a public defender in the appellate courts before entering private practice. Brookins has wide experience in the law, handling criminal, civil and administrative matters. She has worked since 2020 as a trial attorney for a major insurance carrier. Brookins is comfortable in the courtroom, and her work as a Hillsborough County hearing officer prepares her for the everyday legal disputes that ordinary citizens often face in county court.

Melissa Black, 42, was born in Brandon and has lived in Hillsborough County for more than 35 years. A graduate of the University of Florida and Stetson College of Law, Black began her career as an assistant attorney general in Hillsborough representing the Florida Department of Children and Families in child dependency and termination of parental rights cases. She then founded her own firm and continued to work in the juvenile dependency system, representing foster children, victims of human trafficking and children with special needs. Black’s commitment to the most vulnerable reflects an unusual passion, and her civic work reflects her care for this community.

Alicia Whiting Bozich, 44, graduated from Oberlin College and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. She has practiced exclusively in areas of civil litigation. Bozich is described as bright, and her experience across a wide number of judicial circuits would benefit her perspective on the bench. Mike Isaak, 57, graduated from Rollins College and the Cumberland School of Law. A former state prosecutor, Isaak has been in private practice since 1997, handling criminal defense, civil litigation and traffic cases. He understands the busy nature of county court and how judges need to move a docket.

Black has the makings of a solid judge, but we give Brookins the edge for her broader experience and community service. She is thoughtful and a clear communicator, two essential qualities for a judge, and her confidence and engaging style would command respect in the courtroom.

The Tampa Bay Times recommends Linette “Starr” Brookins for Hillsborough County Court Judge, Group 14.

The recommendation process

Before making a recommendation, the Times Editorial Board asks candidates to fill out questionnaires and sit for an interview. The process can also include running criminal and civil background checks, interviewing candidates’ colleagues and employers, reviewing voting records and financial disclosures and examining their past and current positions on relevant issues.

Candidate replies

Candidates not recommended by the editorial board are offered an opportunity to reply. Judicial candidates may send replies of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. Aug. 4 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at voterguide@tampabay.com.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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