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  1. Opinion

Times recommends: 5 for Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judge

Times files The Tampa Bay Times has made its recommendations for the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court races in the Aug. 28, 2018, primary election.
Times files The Tampa Bay Times has made its recommendations for the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court races in the Aug. 28, 2018, primary election.
Published Jul. 27, 2018

Five Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court seats are on the Aug. 28 ballot, including three open ones. At least four races in the 6th Circuit will be decided in this election because they each have only two candidates. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the race with three candidates, the top two finishers will face each other in November. Circuit judges serve six-year terms and are paid $160,688 a year. They hear felony cases, probate and family law issues as well as civil disputes involving damages in excess of $15,000. These are nonpartisan races open to all Pinellas and Pasco voters.

Dave Ellis | Group 4

There are three intriguing candidates to succeed retiring Judge Lynn Tepper. Dave Ellis has the best combination of experience inside and outside the courtroom as well as community leadership.

Ellis, 54, has nearly 26 years of courtroom experience and has run his own north Pinellas law firm for about 20 years. He has represented clients in a variety of areas, including civil, family law and probate. He served as president of the Clearwater Bar Association in 2016-17. He has been a strong advocate for pro bono initiatives, organizing efforts to encourage lawyers to take advantage of a recent state law that allows for limited representation of clients in civil cases who cannot afford a lawyer.

Dustin Anderson, 40, has managed the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel in Pasco County for more than a decade and is widely respected by prosecutors as well as defense lawyers. He supervises 10 lawyers who represent individuals in a wide range of civil areas and in criminal cases when the public defender's office has a conflict. Anderson previously was an assistant state attorney for three years and in private practice for two years, and he has been a finalist for a gubernatorial appointment.

Roxanne Fixsen, 53, worked in the foster care system for 11 years and helped lead the privatization of child welfare in Pinellas and Pasco counties before switching careers. She graduated from Stetson University's law school in 2006 and has been in private practice, handling primarily commercial litigation, Unlike the other two candidates, she has no significant trial experience.

In overall experience and leadership, Ellis has the edge in this race. For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 4, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Dave Ellis.

Christine Helinger | Group 9

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Christine Helinger has more than a decade of experience on the bench and was an assistant public defender for more than 25 years. She has presided over several hundred jury trials, including more than two dozen murder trials. There is no reason for voters to replace her.

Helinger, 67, manages some 700 criminal cases at any one time and consistently ranks high among her colleagues in moving cases through the system. She runs an efficient courtroom and rarely has been reversed on appeal. She would serve less than three years of her final six-year term because of the mandatory retirement age of 70 unless voters approve a constitutional amendment this fall that would raise the retirement age for judges to 75.

Helinger has upset some trial lawyers by her directness and by one decision in particular earlier this year. After watching a defense lawyer's "bizarre'' behavior during a trial, she ordered the lawyer to take a drug test or spend 10 days in jail. The drug test came back positive for two substances. The lawyer was taking prescribed medications and ultimately faced no penalties, and the defendant will be retried. While the episode was embarrassing for the lawyer, Helinger acted appropriately.

Claudia Blackwell, 49, practices marital and family law and has trial experience. She talks generally about the importance of judicial temperament but has "nothing negative to say'' about Helinger and has never appeared before her. But Blackwell initially planned to run for county judge, and she acknowledges other lawyers encouraged her to switch races.

There is no case for voters to make a change, and Helinger's overall record is impressive. For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 9, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Christine Helinger.

Doneene Loar | Group 36

There is only one credible candidate to succeed retiring Judge Frank Quesada. Doneene Loar has spent her career working her way up through the ranks as a Pinellas-Pasco assistant state attorney, and she is well-prepared to be a circuit court judge.

Loar, 40, joined the state attorney's office after she received her law degree from the University of Florida in 2003. She has steadily advanced over the past 15 years from prosecuting misdemeanor cases to felonies to overseeing a team of five prosecutors. She has extensive trial experience, a strong work ethic and is accustomed to managing heavy caseloads. The Pinellas County resident also has been a finalist for a gubernatorial appointment to the bench.

Donald McBath, 61, lives in Pasco County, practices family law and has loaned his campaign $100,000. His abhorrent personal views regarding Muslims and LGBTQ people indicate he could not be an impartial judge. McBath has tweeted "never trust a Muslim'' and suggested on Facebook that homosexuality is a mental illness. He repeated similar anti-Muslim rhetoric to the Times editorial board while contending his private views would not affect his performance as a judge. We strongly disagree. The Florida Bar filed a complaint against McBath last month with the Florida Supreme Court that accuses him of violating three Bar rules regarding competence, diligence and communication.

Fortunately, there is a fine alternative in this race. For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 36, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Doneene Loar.

Thomas Minkoff | Group 40

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas Minkoff has served for nine years and capably handled civil cases in Clearwater and now in St. Petersburg. He has learned on the job and is known for working hard and being prepared, and voters should keep him on the bench.

Minkoff, 68, was appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009. The Times editorial board criticized the appointment of Minkoff, a former general counsel to the Republican Party of Pinellas County, over two experienced county judges. Over time, he has proven to be a capable, diligent judge. He was especially effective when he was assigned to a special court section and spent 16 months helping move thousands of mortgage foreclosure cases through the system that was clogged by the financial crisis. Minkoff would serve less than half of his new six-year term before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 unless voters approve a constitutional amendment in November that would raise the retirement age for judges to 75.

Mike Trentalange, 57, owns a lucrative law practice that represents plaintiffs in medical negligence, product liability and nursing home cases. His law practice and his residence are in Tampa, which is outside the Pinellas-Pasco circuit. Trentalange notes judges are only required by law to move into the circuit before they take office.

While Trentalange will not discuss Minkoff, his campaign is clearly motivated by Minkoff's rulings against him in one medical malpractice lawsuit. After Minkoff denied Trentalange's motions last year to advance the case and to disqualify himself, Trentalange announced his intention to run against him. That led Minkoff to disqualify himself from hearing any cases involving Trentalange. This challenge smacks of retribution. The Florida Bar filed a complaint against Trentalange last month with the Florida Supreme Court that accuses him of violating a Bar rule regarding misconduct tied to his behavior in the same lawsuit.

For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 40, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Thomas Minkoff.

Evan Frayman | Group 45

There is a clear choice in this race to succeed retiring Judge Jack Day. Evan Frayman has the best combination of legal experience and community leadership.

Frayman, 47, has a solid record in civil law practice, including employment and labor law, and as an in-house counsel for staffing agencies. He has trial experience, and he is a volunteer mediator for the county's Office of Human Rights. He has been president of his Rotary Club in Dunedin and of Temple B'nai Israel, and he has served on the board of the Clearwater Bar Foundation. Frayman also has been a finalist several times for a gubernatorial appointment to the bench.

Rebecca Hamilton, 45, is a St. Petersburg lawyer with a modest criminal defense practice. She also was an assistant public defender between 2000 and 2004. Hamilton has trial experience, but it is not clear she has the skills necessary to efficiently run a courtroom and manage a large caseload.

For Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Group 45, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Evan Frayman.

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