Judicial races: the blandest campaigns

It’s election time, and that means campaign signs for judicial candidates line South Florida’s major thoroughfares.

08/05/2012 5:00 AM

08/05/2012 9:37 PM

“Make me a judge and I will lock up the criminals and throw away the key.”

T hat is a campaign slogan that will get you elected to the bench.

Judicial campaigns, however, cannot resort to that kind of bluster. The result: Judicial races are some of the blandest contests in all of politics. So bland that voters generally have no idea who they are voting for, if they vote at all.

Consider the purposely vague slogan of Circuit Judge Dale Ross in Broward County: “Legacy of Justice, Commitment to Community and Family.”

Meanwhile, his opponent, Michael “Mickey” Rocque, gives a long-winded dissertation on his campaign homepage summing up his life from birth in suburban New York City to his present-day job representing “hundreds of people in our community with their legal problems and court appearances each year.”

Left unclear: what, exactly, either would do if elected on Aug. 14. They’re simply not allowed to say.

State campaign rules prohibit judicial candidates from making promises of conduct in office aside from the most perfunctory bromides of impartiality.

And while judicial candidates are allowed to speak publicly about their views on specific hot-button issues (like abortion, the death penalty, etc.), few do.

“A judicial candidate may, but is not required to, espouse personal beliefs so long as they also explain that they will follow the law,” said Rebecca Mae Salokar, chairwoman of Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations. “But they tend not to be very forthcoming.”

And so, engaged voters wanting to make an informed decision are forced to read the tea leaves and guess how a candidate will act.

Endorsed by the Police Benevolent Association? That’s a candidate who’s tough on crime! Twenty years of experience as a public defender? Sympathetic to the poor and downtrodden.

Meanwhile, would-be judges are busy appealing to the broadest slice of the electorate possible while raising the funds necessary to mount an effective campaign.

On Primary Day, voters will choose two types of judges: Circuit, who oversee felony criminal cases and major civil litigation (with an annual salary of $142,178 — even more than the governor); and County, who oversee misdemeanors cases and minor financial disputes (salary: $134,280).

It takes a war chest of at least $75,000 to mount a successful campaign, said Gerald Schwartz, who for decades was the house DJ for the county’s game of judicial musical chairs. The campaign consultant, 84, would charge some $20,000 to coach candidates on where and how to run, calling the shots for more than 100 races during his career.

The money goes in part to papering the roadside with campaign signs that generally have a name, a photo, some sort of brief slogan, and little else, although there are subtleties even to that. Edward Newman, an incumbent judge in Miami-Dade, uses aqua and teal in his campaign literature to remind people he was a Miami Dolphins lineman back in the day.

“It’s both an art and a science,” Schwartz said. “Does the candidate with the most money always win? No, but it helps.”

In Schwartz’s hierarchy of importance, fundraising falls behind just endorsements and strong Florida Bar ratings — the scoreboard lawyers use to judge their own.

Having the right last name goes a long way, too. It’s no secret that ethnic groups are more inclined to vote for their own, particularly when they know little about the candidates and the issues, he said.

“If your name is Garcia or Fernandez, you’ve got a pretty good shot,” Schwartz said, referring to races in Miami-Dade County. Hyphenated multiethnic names are even better.

HAVING THE EDGE

But in judicial races, there’s no power greater than incumbency.

Out of the 358 possible county or circuit court races statewide this election cycle, only 72 will be contested. That means a full 80 percent of the Judicial Class of 2012 will take the bench without opposition. Of the 12 contested circuit and county judicial races in Miami-Dade County this year, only three involve challenged incumbents.

Joe Davis, a judge in Miami-Dade’s County Court, is running unopposed — due in no small part to the $208,000 his campaign had raised through March. Of that sum, $150,000 came from Davis’ personal fortune. He loaned himself that money, presumably to both show his supporters he was committed, and to scare off any would-be challengers.

Judges who earn their robes in an election reach the bench owing a debt of gratitude to the very attorneys who will appear before them in court. Lawyers and firms are by far the biggest donors to judicial campaigns.

It takes far fewer votes to win these countywide races than one would think. In 2010, the last judicial election, just 215,000 of the Miami-Dade’s 1.2 million registered voters went the polls. Of that number, roughly 40,000 people didn’t bother to cast a vote for judges, meaning less than 15 percent of the electorate participated in the judicial election.

“The electorate doesn’t want to do the research in judicial races, so people don’t vote for judges,” Salokar said. “It’s the same reason they don’t vote for constitutional amendments. They don’t know who or what they’re voting for.”

In most cases, it takes a controversial or highly publicized ruling for a sitting judge to lose a spot on the bench.

Former Miami-Dade circuit judge Joe Durant, now deceased, was tagged with the nickname “Let ’Em Go Joe” after handing out some controversial sentences, including a one-year stretch for a pair of former Dolphins after they tried to sell undercover cops a pound of cocaine in 1977. He got beat.

Susan Lebow, a circuit judge in Broward, got caught in the same trap. She was derided as “Let ’Em Go Lebow” after overturning a manslaughter conviction against former University of Miami football star Brian Blades. Lebow drew a challenger in 2010, but won reelection convincingly.

FIRST-TIMERS

By and large, contested races pit first-timer against first-timer.

That was the case in the 2010 Miami-Dade judicial race between Monica Gordo and Robert Kuntz. Gordo, then an assistant state attorney, trounced her opponent by 30 points, despite Kuntz, a commercial litigant, spending the better part of two years on the campaign trail.

Kuntz’s campaign strategy was to meet with as many groups and participate in as many candidate forums as possible. He claims to have put 45,000 miles on his truck and would often make have two or three appearances a night, traveling to all corners of the county.

And unlike many of his peers, Kuntz would talk about his personal political beliefs — after assuring his audience that he would always apply the laws that existed, regardless of his opinion of them.

“I tried to be extremely forthcoming,” said Kuntz, who spent every dime of the $81,000 he raised in 2010. “It’s easier to tell the truth all the time.”

Katie McHugh, squaring off against County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman for a judicial seat in Broward, takes a more conservative tack. Her answer to any potentially divisive question is the same: The legislature is elected to make laws, and judges are elected uphold and follow them.

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