Three judges facing opposition
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- For many of the judges at the Hillsborough County Courthouse, the clock ticking past noon Friday was the sweetest sound of the year.
Of the 26 circuit and county judges up for re-election this fall, only three drew challengers by the qualifying deadline.
"I feel like a balloon, and all the air has been let out," said Circuit Judge Rex Barbas, describing his relief on learning he would run unopposed. There were rumblings at the courthouse that he might face a late-filing challenger.
But instead of holding a placard in the Florida sun, slogging between civic functions and knocking on doors, the unopposed judges will get the summer to themselves and their families. Barbas plans to ride his motorcycle, do some painting and read some Stephen King.
Some political observers were surprised that so few judges drew opposition, especially considering the scandals that have embroiled the courthouse in recent years.
But with two seats coming open because of retirements, and the Legislature greenlighting a new position, would-be judges have other choices than to violate the unwritten rule: Don't run against a sitting judge.
"It's still a lot easier to run for an open seat than it is to challenge a judge," said political consultant Wayne Garcia. "Incumbent judges always try to to discourage someone from running against a sitting judge because it creates a bad precedent. Judges circle the wagons. Once folks realize you can get away with running against an incumbent, there's no incumbent who's safe."
Only one circuit judge, William Levens, will face a challenge. This one originated in an unusual place -- his own courtroom.
Until he recused himself recently, Levens was presiding over the divorce case of lawyer Brent W. Yessin, who is separating from his wife, Michelle.
Yessin said he was dismayed by the way Levens has handled the case, particularly by Levens' decision in December to give Yessin's estranged wife temporary custody of his child and home.
Yessin said he wasn't given a chance to attend a hearing to argue his side. At a later hearing, Yessin said, Levens banished his family from the courtroom for no good reason.
"When I walked out of the courtroom and asked lawyers if it was common, they said, 'Absolutely. It happens all the time,' " Yessin said. "I'm thinking, 'How many other people just get railroaded because they don't know any better?' "
Yessin said the thought came to him, "I ought to run against that sonofagun."
Levens declined to discuss specifics, saying he was bound by judicial canons from talking about an ongoing case. But he said, "I fully support the democratic process that allows us to elect our judges."
Nancy Harris, who represents Yessin's wife in the divorce, said she filed a motion in March seeking to hold Yessin in contempt of court for failing to pay expenses that Judge Levens ordered him to pay. Levens would have ruled on the motion, but he recused himself because Yessin will run against him.
Harris called the situation "very unusual."
"I've been doing this for 18 years," she said, "and I've never seen this done."
Two county court judges have challengers. Lawyer Gary S. Dolgin will run against Judge Eric Myers, and lawyer Anthony Arena will try to unseat Judge Cheryl K. Thomas.
Lawyers Carlos Pazos, Ken Whalen and Martha Cook will run for the seat vacated by circuit judge Florence Foster, who will leave as a result of a recent downturn in her battle with multiple sclerosis. Ray Brooks had said he would run for the seat, but he did not meet the qualifying deadline.
In another race, Kevin Carey and Walter H. Foster will vie for the seat of retiring Circuit Judge Donald Evans. Brad Souders had said he also would run for that seat, but announced Friday he was withdrawing in hopes that Gov. Jeb Bush would approve the Legislature's recent decision to create a new local judge's seat.
Other circuit judges running unopposed in September are Frank A. Gomez, Barbara Fleischer, Marva Crenshaw, Dan Perry, James Arnold, Greg Holder, Ralph Stoddard, Charlene Honeywell, Jack Espinosa Jr., Robert Simms, Claudia Isom, Chet Tharpe, Manuel Menendez Jr., Sam Pendino, Vivian Maye, Wayne Timmerman, Richard Nielsen, Katherine Essrig, James Barton, Herbert Baumann, and J. Rogers Padgett.
"I might buy a six-pack of Heineken tonight," Padgett said Friday. "It'll be my way of celebrating."
Judge Mark Wolfe will run unopposed on the county bench.
-- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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