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Judicial campaign: It’s a different process

Bradley Parsons

Duval County’s candidates for three Circuit Court vacancies are preparing to embark on a different kind of campaign.

There will be no mudslinging, no airing of opponents’ dirty laundry and no partisan rhetoric. Judicial candidates aren’t allowed even to say whether they vote Republican or Democrat.

Judges are supposed to be impartial. That means many of the hot-button political issues facing the courts are out of bounds during the election.

Candidates who rail against the death penalty or label themselves tough on crime will have a tough time coming across as objective once they sit on the bench, explained Terri McCaulie, a lawyer running for the Group 35 seat against Daniel Wilensky, also an attorney.

“As candidates for judge, we can’t say we’re pro-law enforcement, or that we want to crack down on crime,” she said. “We can’t have preconceived ideas about issues that might come up before us later.”

Judicial candidates are bound by state laws and Florida Bar regulations. In addition to the extensive financial reporting requirements that all candidates must follow, judicial candidates must follow the state’s laws governing non-partisan elections and ethical guidelines laid out by the Bar.

The state prevents candidates in judicial and school board elections from campaigning on their party affiliation. The Bar, in an effort to maintain the integrity of the office, mandates that judicial candidates stay away from the mudslinging that has almost become an electoral tradition.

“The courts stand at the heart of the democratic process,” said Florida Chief Justice Barbara Pariente in a statement to candidates. “I ask that you conduct your campaigns in a manner exemplifying this commitment to service.”

The Bar’s guidelines might help preserve the bench’s image, but they can make for boring campaigns. For excitement, the typical judicial stump speech is on par with congressional confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees, said McCaulie.

“You have all these people asking questions, trying to get the nominee to say something, anything, but they can’t,” said McCaulie. “It ends up being more about the experience they have and whether they possess the right kind of demeanor.”

All of the candidates who responded to questions for this article said they intend to build their campaign on their qualifications.

As owners of their own practices, McCaulie and lawyer Jeff Morrow, a candidate for the Group 33 seat, said they had administrative expertise to complement diverse trial backgrounds.

Morrow said he’s “done everything from A to Z” during a 25-year career as a trial attorney. It sounds like a throwaway line until he runs down a list of trial work starting with adoptions and ending in zoning.

“See, A to Z,” he said.

Wilensky touts his 29 years of trial work and his extensive mediation work in family law.

“I’ve been in a position as a mediator to make decisions in divorces and child custody cases,” said Wilensky. “Those are important decisions and I’ve been chosen to make those decisions as special magistrate by some of the finest attorneys in family law.”

When it comes to experience, though, none of the current crop of candidates can top Tyrie Boyer, a sitting county judge and a declared candidate for the Group 34 seat. Boyer’s experience in the judge’s robe might explain why he likely won’t face competition for the seat.

The content of the campaign might be different, but judicial candidates have one thing in common with their political counterparts: they need money.

Morrow said he’s been told that a judicial campaign can cost up to $300,000, although an abbreviated campaign season might mean a modest discount this year. The Circuit Court seats were created this year by the Florida Legislature, which delayed the start of campaigning.

McCaulie and Wilensky couldn’t predict how much they’d spend on the campaign. Wilensky simply appraised the process as “expensive,” while McCaulie spelled out a financing strategy that would work well in any election.

“From what I’ve been told about money,” said McCaulie, “the more you have the better.”

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