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Judge to challenge for circuit's top spot

Circuit Judge Susan Sexton is vying to become the first woman in the circuit to be chief judge.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published January 31, 2007


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TAMPA - Next month's chief judge election in Hillsborough will feature an unusual component: competition.

Circuit Judge Susan Sexton announced Tuesday that she will seek the circuit's top administrative position. Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr., who has served unchallenged for the past six years, also is running.

If elected, Sexton would be the circuit's first female chief judge.

"It's just been something that I've always wanted to do," she said Tuesday. "I think I deserve a chance."

The chief judge serves as the public face of the county's judiciary, with duties ranging from interacting with state legislators to assigning colleagues to their courts.

Contested chief judge races are an anomaly in the Tampa courthouse, where Menendez's predecessor, F. Dennis Alvarez, served for 13 years and the suggestion of term limits has never been entertained. And running against a sitting chief can be sticky. Even judges who want the job often feel uncomfortable vying for it.

"Because they're afraid that they might be penalized if they don't prevail," said Circuit Judge Debra Behnke, who lost her 2001 bid to unseat Alvarez.

Circuit Judge Gregory Holder was one of the two judges who nominated Sexton. Though Holder has a history of being at odds with courthouse leadership, he said his nomination was not a criticism of Menendez.

Rather, he said, it was "high time" for a woman in the post.

"She will bring an inclusive atmosphere to the circuit, drawing on the talents of the judges and staff," Holder said.

The county's 62 judges will vote by secret ballot Feb. 14. Menendez, who is seeking his fourth two-year term, seemed unruffled Tuesday by the prospect of opposition.

He said he has worked hard to clean up the tarnished image the courthouse suffered at the end of Alvarez's tenure and believes the judiciary benefits from continuity in the chief judge office.

"I was honored to serve my colleagues, and I would be honored to continue in that capacity," he said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 31, 2007, 01:36:02]


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