Voters should pay attention to judicial races

Last night, Historic City News editor Michael Gold attended the Judicial Candidate Forum held at the Northeast Florida Regional Airport at St. Augustine — the room should have been wall-to-wall voters from across the 7th judicial circuit, but it wasn’t.

“There seems to be only minimal interest in the judicial races,” Gold said. “Perhaps thirty or forty voters attended and I’d be willing to bet that the majority of the voters in the circuit couldn’t name at least two of the four candidates who survived the August 24th primary.”

Republican Club of Greater St. Augustine president Gary Bruce, whose organization sponsored last night’s forum, said “After speaking with each of the candidates, the importance of learning about their qualifications and views became apparent.”

For all the fanfare associated with political campaigns, candidates for seats on the circuit court receive little publicity. And, as attorneys, they are further limited in what they say and how they say it by ethical standards of The Florida Bar as well as the requirements of Florida’s election laws.

Last night, we saw face-to-face some of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the four men – two of whom will be our next judges in the 7th circuit.

Sheriff David B. Shoar, who has endorsed two of the candidates, explained to Historic City News his perspective on the importance of selecting the best circuit court judges. “The man you select will be with us for the next six years,” Shoar said. “Unless he dies or resigns or is removed by the governor, you are stuck with him and his decisions.”

Bruce asked the four candidates questions about their impressions of the job. Each seemed to be on the same page with respect to the importance of applying the law as it’s written rather than “legislating from the bench”. On other issues, there was less agreement.

As a reporter, Gold says that he was somewhat surprised at the tone of the speakers. “There were some veiled, and, some not-so veiled, accusations made between the candidates as well as some disputes over the accuracy of claims made by each other’s opponent.”

For the Group 10 seat, Daytona Beach attorney Scott DuPont faces Palatka attorney Don Holmes.

DuPont boasts honesty, integrity and common sense as his strengths, but, more than that, he says that these traits define him in this race and distinguish him from his opponent. In as many words last night, DuPont says that he is the candidate with the highest moral and ethical standards in this race. In his introduction, DuPont explained that he previously was called to the ministry and that he graduated Bible College then decided on public service after he obtained his law degree and went to work for the State Attorney’s office — although he also points out that he is not a “judicial activist”. DuPont explained that he is proud of the fact that he is not financially supported or endorsed by “labor unions, the liberal media or lobbyists”.

Holmes asks, “Who do you trust?” Recalling his 34 years of legal experience in Putnam County, Holmes says that voters “don’t have to rely on what he tells you”. Living and working around Palatka as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, going to trial on civil and criminal cases in the circuit court, having knowledge of the attorneys who practice in the area and the other judges as well as his experiences within the law enforcement community are attributes Holmes says that only he can claim.

As for endorsements, Holmes said that he was not ashamed of any of them. “Labor unions,” Holmes asked? “Yes. I’m endorsed by the officers who are members of the PBA, firemen, paramedics and emergency service providers.” Holmes chuckled about his opponent’s remarks concerning the “liberal media” — a reference to Holmes endorsement from the Orlando Sentinel. “Yes, I drove to Orlando and interviewed with their editorial board,” Holmes said. “However, it isn’t like my opponent didn’t do the same thing — only difference was that I was awarded their endorsement and now Mr. DuPont wants to criticize it.” Holmes said he has no idea what DuPont is referring to when he mentions financial support from lobbyists — DuPont offered no clarification of his allegation.

For the Group 5 seat, Daytona Beach attorney Joe Horrox faces Assistant State Attorney Dennis Craig from Ponce Inlet in Volusia County.

What these two candidates agree on gets lost in the things they seem to disagree on — including how to correctly state each other’s credentials and assess each other’s qualifications to be the next circuit court judge.

Horrox will win the “sign war” with bigger, more visible campaign signs. Horrox says that he can be more efficient than his opponent; a trait that will be required with the heavy caseload in Volusia County. Horrox is a Stetson Law School graduate and he says that he has practiced law in Florida since 1987. During that time, Horrox points out that he has practiced civil law, not criminal law. Horrox says that better qualifies him than his opponent, who is a criminal prosecutor, because the position for which they are competing will hear only civil cases. “I won’t need on the job training,” Horrox remarked. “I am the only candidate with civil jury trial experience applying Florida law.”

Craig is a 1986 University of Pittsburgh School of Law graduate. Craig practiced civil law in Pennsylvania until he moved to Florida in 1997. After being admitted to The Florida Bar, Craig went to work for the State Attorney’s office where he has worked as a criminal prosecutor for the past 12 years. Craig says he has more “trial and complex litigation” experience than his opponent. Craig distinguishes himself as being selected four times by the judicial nominating committee for different judicial appointments. Craig refutes his opponent’s criticism of his civil jury trial experience in Pennsylvania, saying, “It’s the same evidence code in both states.” Craig also says that trials are trials; whether they are civil or criminal. However, Craig disputes the value of Horrox trial experience saying that much of the work his opponent has done “was back in the office”. Craig says you can not equate experience in “pre-trial” to experience at “trial”. Craig, making a football analogy, said, “In pre-trial they don’t try to take your head off — in a trial, they do.”

Photo credits: © 2010 Historic City News staff photographer

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