Miami-Dade County

Miami judicial races include some intrigue and a lawsuit

One judicial candidate is suing his opponent over her ownership in Miami erotic motels. A prospective judge has a résumé that includes being suspended from practicing law for three years. One incumbent judge is fighting for his seat against a former Florida House representative.

Though Florida judicial elections feature normally dry campaigns, next week’s races in Miami-Dade nevertheless offer some tantalizing story lines.

In all, 10 seats — six in Miami-Dade circuit court, four in county court — are up for grabs in the Aug. 30 election. Another 18 judges earned reelection in May when no one chose to run against them.

In Florida, candidates are limited in how they campaign. They can’t make promises other than to be fair and impartial, can’t commit to positions about the law and can’t personally solicit donations.

But allegations laid out in a lawsuit have elevated the interest in the race of incumbent circuit judge Jason Bloch, who earlier this month sued his opponent, Marcia del Rey, saying discrepancies in financial disclosures and credentials should bar her from being on the ballot.

Bloch is relatively new on the bench. He was appointed in 2014.

A former assistant Miami-Dade County attorney, Bloch is assigned to the criminal division, where he has presided over several high-profile cases, in one case granting bond to a man accused of shooting a North Miami Beach cop. He is also the judge on the case of a teen accused of killing a rabbi in North Miami-Dade. In granting bond to the defendant in March, Bloch questioned the strength of prosecutors’ evidence.

In an interview, Bloch said he works hard to ensure justice is “administered fairly” for defendants in criminal court.

“It’s also important to be sensitive and take into account the victim’s perspective,” Bloch said. “There’s nothing quite like the trauma of being a victim.”

Bloch is well-funded. According to financial disclosures, his net worth is $37 million, much of it from investments and trust accounts. Bloch has loaned his campaign $300,000, and counts over $151,000 in donations.

His camp filed the lawsuit seeking to boot del Rey from the ballot, arguing she failed to properly disclose income from a hotel she and her family owns in Puerto Rico. The del Rey family owns a chain of hotels in Miami that cater to the sexually adventurous.

The lawsuit suggests, but offers no evidence, that her family is profiting off “highly questionable activities” such as prostitution and human trafficking.

Del Rey’s attorney, in a motion to dismiss, has called the lawsuit nothing more than last-minute “false and negative political attacks.”

“Del Rey is legally qualified for circuit court judge,” attorney Robert Fernandez wrote. “No amount of political mudslinging disguised as a lawsuit is going to change that fact or Florida law.”

Lawyers on both sides will present their case on Thursday before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jerald Bagley.

In Miami’s political scene — where last names are believed to sway voters who know little about judicial candidates — del Rey figures to be a formidable challenge.

For years, her name and face have adorned ubiquitous ads for her legal practice on billboards and bus benches in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods for years. She, too, has money, raising over $217,000 and loaning her campaign an additional $100,000, records show.

She was a member of the first graduating class at Florida International University’s law school in 2005, and has ran a private practice for most of her career.

“I have a long, proven commitment and track record of giving back to the community, starting since I was a child and continuing to this day. I consider it a privilege to be able to help others in my life-long residence of Miami-Dade,” Del Rey said in a statement. “I have dedicated my life to helping others, especially the most vulnerable members of our community, including children, abused women and the elderly.

“Unlike my opponent, we have chosen to maintain a transparent, clean and positive campaign, reflecting the professionalism and positivity I hope to bring to the bench.”

Del Rey has also billed herself as a former prosecutor, but records show she hadn’t been sworn in as a lawyer yet while working briefly as “legal trainee” at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office in 2005. The office lists her as having been terminated, although she insists she sent in a timely resignation letter — which cited a grueling work schedule as her reason for leaving.

Questions about the past have also dogged a candidate in another circuit race.

That candidate: Elena Ortega-Tauler, a private lawyer who was suspended from legal practice for three years in the late 1990s over her misappropriating funds from clients’ trust accounts. Miami-Dade’s Justice Building Blog was first to point out her suspension.

Ortega-Tauler doesn’t shy away from her past. “That experience taught me to be a better lawyer, better human being, and to be grateful for having had a second chance to make things right and never to allow that to happen again,” she said.

A mother of six, Ortega-Tauler has worked in mediation and practiced family, criminal and civil law. “I also believe I possess the temperament to serve as judge,” she said. “I believe a judge must be kind, respectful and compassionate.”

She is running against incumbent Jorge Sarduy, who was appointed to the circuit bench in 2008 and is now in the family division. This is his first campaign, and he is fond of pointing out that he dropped out of high school only to earn his GED and eventually go to law school.

“Whenever I tell a young person what I went through, that I dropped out, I never had one that doesn’t give a second look,” Sarduy said. “It’s powerful for them to see someone that has walked in their shoes.”

In another high-profile race, incumbent Judge Robert Luck is facing off against former Florida House Rep. Yolly Roberson.

Luck, a former Miami federal prosecutor who handled major cases, was appointed to the bench in September 2013 and has presided over 40 jury trials. His most high-profile: the corruption trial of former Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman, who was sentenced to 22 months in prison although he is appealing and has not served any time.

He recently returned to the criminal bench after a stint in civil.

“I feel humbled that the legal community has rated me as one of the most qualified judges in the county,” Luck said in an interview.

His opponent is Roberson, a nurse-turned-lawyer who became the first Haitian-American woman elected to the Florida Legislature in 2002. She left office because of term limits in 2010.

In her legal career, Roberson has worked as an assistant public defender and an assistant attorney general before working in probate and immigration law. “My entire life has been preparing for something like this,” Roberson said of her judicial aspirations. “I’ve practiced every aspect of the law.”

Her father was also a judge in Haiti.

The other two circuit races feature crowded fields.

In one race, Mark Blumstein, Rene Gordon, Denise Martinez-Scanziani and Luis Perez Medina are vying for the bench. In the other, Rosy Aponte, Carol Breece and Oscar Rodriguez-Fonts are squaring off.

There are four races for county judge, who oversee misdemeanor and minor civil cases. They are:

▪  Defense attorney Milena Abreu is challenging incumbent Fred Seraphin.

▪  Lizzet Martinez is taking on longtime incumbent Ed Newman.

▪  County Judge Wendall Graham is trying to keep his seat against challenger Antonio Jimenez.

▪  Lawyers Linda Luce and Ruben Alcoba are vying for an open county seat.