tampabay.com

Suit puts judicial races in limbo

By CHRIS TISCH, COLLEEN JENKINS and JAMAL THALJI
Published July 12, 2006


After the state Legislature created 55 new judgeships this year, dozens of lawyers statewide announced they would run for them.

They raised money. Some bought campaign signs or mailed out brochures.

But all those campaign efforts may be for naught. A lawsuit filed last week seeks to abolish the elections so Gov. Jeb Bush can appoint the new judges instead.

Bush allowed the bill to become law earlier this year without his signature. He said he supported the new positions but questioned the constitutionality of the elections.

The suit, filed by the panel Bush appointed that nominates judges in Miami-Dade County, says the measure creating the judgeships is unconstitutional because it improperly strips the governor of the power to appoint people to fill openings - even if they are new.

The challenge puts candidates running for the new seats in limbo. Should they spend more money on bumper stickers and direct mailings only to see the election canceled? Or should they hold off spending money and hope the election goes forward?

"You definitely hope that the time, money and effort spent in a campaign are spent for a reason," said Frances Werner-Watkins, who is running for Pasco's group 6 county judgeship. "A lot of people are putting out a lot of time and money for me, and that could be taken away in a heartbeat. That's frustrating."

Other candidates said they are talking to constitutional lawyers to gauge the suit's significance.

"It didn't look to be on cogent legal ground," said Tracy Sheehan, a Tampa lawyer. "Worst case scenario, we'll all be in the middle of the campaign and we'll be de-candidatized."

The Florida Supreme Court will decide the issue. Because the qualifying period for the election is July 17-21, the suit asks the court to make a decision swiftly.

The decision will affect 13 candidates vying for four new circuit judgeships in Hillsborough County and 12 candidates seeking five new posts in Pinellas and Pasco counties, which share a judicial circuit.

One of the Hillsborough candidates, Samantha Ward, had to quit her job with the Public Defender's Office on Friday to run.

Anne Wansboro, a candidate for Pasco County's group 6 county judgeship, said switching from a campaign to the appointment process just weeks before the September primary would be easy - doing it the other way around would be the problem.

"Because then to get the campaign up and running from scratch would be a lot more difficult than getting the application submitted," she said.

T. Wayne Bailey, a political science professor at Stetson University in DeLand, predicted the state Supreme Court will reject the lawsuit.

"I would be very surprised - even shocked - if the court overrode the Legislature. My perception is the court would have to have an overwhelming concern to reach out and rebuke the Legislature," he said.