Don't judge us only by our ages

That’s what some young candidates for the bench say, although others say maturity is an issue.

Published August 11, 2006

Ashley Moody, 31, and John “Jay” Rudy III, 35, want to be circuit judges in Hillsborough County. Susan Bedinghaus, 33, wants a county judge gig in Pinellas.

If they win their races Sept. 5, they will become the youngest sitting circuit and county judges in Florida.
Not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.

“I don’t think just time or age mean much. It’s the experience that you have,” said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke, 53. But “in order to have experience, you kind of have to be older.”

The Florida Legislature requires lawyers to have five years of experience before seeking election to the bench. Moody barely makes the cut, having been admitted to the Florida Bar in April 2001.

“I look 20,” admits the daughter of U.S. District Judge James S. Moody. Then she ticks off the accomplishments she amassed before hitting the big 3-0: master’s in accounting, law degree, job at a huge private law firm, prosecutor for the federal government.

Those all get a nod on her campaign Web site. But her age and years of experience? Not a mention.

“I would hope that voters would base their decision by looking at my experience, rather than my age,” she said. “I have a lot of energy. I am motivated to get things accomplished.”

Her opponents, 37-year-old Patrick Courtney and 42-year-old Gary Dolgin, suggest that voters should consider how much more of a learning curve a younger attorney will face.

“As you’re older, there’s a maturation process,” said Dolgin, a lawyer for almost 16 years. “You’re more seasoned, and you’ve had more life experience. That’s important for someone on the bench.”

According to the Office of State Court Administration, Florida’s youngest circuit judge is 37; the youngest county judge turned 34 on Friday.

Neither Pinellas nor Hillsborough has a sitting circuit judge younger than 40. But the most senior judges in both counties were in their 30s when they took the bench in 1974. Circuit Judge Ray E. Ulmer Jr. was appointed in

Pinellas at age 33, and Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett was 36 when he became a county judge.

By then, Padgett had been a lawyer for about a decade. He said young lawyers who are destined to be good judges catch up quickly. Yet like other local judges, Padgett said more legal experience is needed to be a circuit judge than a county judge.

“Ordinarily,” he said, five years as a lawyer “isn’t enough experience.”

Voters, however, have bucked the opinion of the legal community before. In 2002, 36-year-old Monica Sierra trumped Woody Isom for a circuit seat in Tampa, despite Isom’s nearly two  more decades of experience and his strong support from Hillsborough lawyers.

That year in Pasco County, John Renke III won a contentious battle to become Florida’s youngest circuit judge at age 33.

Sierra now hears family law cases; Renke got booted off the bench this year for campaign misconduct.

 “It doesn’t matter what age the judge is,” said Pinellas County Judge Kathleen Hessinger, who won her seat in 2004 at age 39. “It depends on whether the judge or candidate has the courtroom or legal experience and the intellect and ability to preside over cases. I’ve seen older candidates without those abilities.”

In Florida, “young attorneys” are those with less than five years in the bar and any lawyer than  36. Pasco County also has two candidates for county judge who fall into that group: Frances Werner-Watkins, 35, and Anthony Salzano, 34.

As a whole, young lawyers are probably more sensitive to the ever more diverse population and more comfortable incorporating technology into their work, said John Stewart, a Vero Beach lawyer and president of the Florida Bar’s young lawyers division.

Good judges work hard, keep updated on the law and maintain an even temperament, he said.

“I don’t think that those qualities are necessarily purely the provenance  of senior attorneys,” said Stewart, who is 36.

Until a Times reporter told him, Nat Kidder said he didn’t know his opponent’s age. But Kidder, a 51-year-old private-practice lawyer running for a Pinellas county judgeship, said he has been asking voters to pay attention to the disparity in experience between him and Bedinghaus, who turns 34 later this month.

He’s got almost 19 years of broad legal endeavors; she has eight years in the Florida Bar and currently works part time in the Florida attorney general’s child support enforcement division in St. Petersburg. In 2005, she handled just one case in private practice.

“A key ingredient in the mix of qualifications is experience,” Kidder said. Judges, he noted, often are required to make quick decisions on the bench. “Those decisions have to be based on wisdom, which is the product of experience.”

 Rudy is an assistant U.S. attorney who is at least six years younger than any other candidate in his four-person race for a circuit judgeship in Tampa. Two of his opponents are at least 15 years older.

Rudy views youthfulness as an advantage and says not everyone improves with age. To prove his point, he compared a country club golf pro with 20 years of experience with golf great Tiger Woods.

“Which one would you rather learn from?” Rudy asked.

Times staff writer Carrie Weimar contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.