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Judges' jobs are no longer as secure

Higher pay and fewer open positions attract candidates. It also may be the last time for an election.

By ANITA KUMAR and WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


Florida judgeships usually come with ironclad job security unique among elected officials. Win a judgeship, and it's yours until either retirement or death.

It's not a rule, but it's close to being one: Attorneys don't challenge sitting judges.

But job security isn't what it once was in Pinellas-Pasco courtrooms. With the deadline to qualify for the ballot at noon today, three Pinellas-Pasco judges face election challengers, an assault on the judicial status quo.

"It's certainly out of the ordinary for Pinellas County," said Judge Karl Grube, a county judge since 1976 who is being opposed. "Some of the older judges are drawing opposition this time around."

Grube, Pinellas County Judge Myra McNary and Circuit Judge William Webb, who presides in Pasco, all face election challenges this fall.

A fourth, Circuit Judge Brandt Downey III, may have squeaked by without a re-election fight when a challenger for his seat dropped out of the race on Wednesday.

"I look at it as a loyalty kind of thing," said Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb of Dade City. "The way it's usually worked, unless a judge is doing a sorry job, lawyers think they're better off with the judge they know than with the judge they don't know."

The 2000 election brings a few twists. Perhaps the most important: This may be the last time judges will be elected.

In addition, judges say other factors contributing to the number of candidates include a dearth of open seats for the first time in recent history, the unprecedented ousting of three incumbents in 1996 and 1998 and a recent pay raise for judges.

"We just never got opposed," said Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach, who retired in 1993 after almost 25 years on the bench. "I don't think it's as sacred anymore."

This fall, Grube will be challenged by Assistant Public Defender Kandice Friesen; McNary by St. Petersburg attorney Robert "Bo" Michael; and Webb by New Port Richey lawyer Don Peyton.

Peyton said he is surprised more attorneys don't make runs against incumbent judges.

"It's an elected office. It's not an anointed office," he said. "The public should have a choice."

This fall, the public will have many choices.

In addition to judicial elections, all Floridians will vote in November whether to switch to a system in which trial judges are appointed by the governor and face periodic yes-or-no retention votes. Now, judges face elections every six years but can be appointed to fill a midterm vacancy.

Voters in each county and each circuit will decide whether to appoint or elect judges. That could mean one county could decide to elect its judges while a neighboring county decides to appoint them. The choice comesfrom a constitutional amendment Floridians approved in 1998.

Friesen, running against Grube, said she had been considering to run but the referendum was one factor that swayed her.

Supporters of changing to an appointed system argue it would take the politics out of the judiciary and wouldn't put judges in the position of accepting campaign contributions from lawyers who appear before them in court. But backers of the current system say it lets voters to determine who sits on the bench, and switching would give power to a small group of politically connected people.

These days, judges enjoy the benefits of incumbency like the holders of any office. For judges, it may begin and end with name recognition, especially in campaignswhere candidates are ethically barred from criticizing their opponents or talking about substantive issues.

That doesn't mean incumbents always win. But it is rare that they lose.

Only about a half-dozen judicial incumbents have been defeated in the past three decades in the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit, including three recently.

In 1996, Walt Logan beat longtime Circuit Judge Claire Luten, making her the first circuit judge in 16 years to be defeated. James Berfield also defeated County Judge Charles Carrere.

Two years later, Irene Sullivan won the seat held by Circuit Judge Bonnie Newton, who was facing charges of abusive courtroom behavior from a judicial review board.

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer said the paucity of open seats is the top reason for challengers. If at least one seat was open, she said, no one would be facing an incumbent.

"You want to talk about something that hasn't happened in a long time," said Schaeffer, who faces no opposition this year so far. "If people want to be judges, there's only one place to go. And that's to a seat that's already filled.

Some judges say they are convinced the number of challenges has nothing to do with the referendum or lack of an open seat.

Two of Dade City's judges, Cobb and Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson, said they think candidates are attracted by a judge's pay.

"I hesitate to say it," said Swanson, who is retiring in 2002 after 29 years on the bench. "I think realistically it's the salary. The salary is at a point where it is financially attractive to some lawyers. I suspect many lawyers aren't grossing $130,000 a year plus all the benefits we get on the circuit. For some lawyers, a run for office is an attractive gamble."

When first elected, Swanson said, he earned $28,000 a year. But starting in October, county judges will earn $117,000 and circuit judges $130,000.

Peyton, a lawyer since 1974, said he is not getting into the race for the hefty salary.

"The fact of the matter is that many attorneys who run have very successful practices and normally have to take a cut in pay to become a judge," he said.

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