New judges to be tapped, that power line thing & other news of note

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Here come the (new) judges

Very soon, Gov. Rick Scott and the public will have reshaped the courts in Palm Beach County.

On Friday, members of the governor’s legal staff were here to interview the 15 candidates for three vacant circuit court judgeships in the county. Scott has until the end of the month to choose from among the finalists.

The election cycle added three other new members to the circuit bench. Incumbent Diana Lewis lost to Jessica Ticktin. Jaimie Goodman won the race to fill the seat of Lucy Chernow Brown, who is retiring. Samantha Schosberg Feuer ran unopposed to succeed Sandra McSorley. She, too, is retiring.

Also this month, the Palm Beach County Bar Association began accepting applications for the vacancy that will be created when Judge Edward Fine retires. The deadline to apply is Jan. 2.

So by early next year one-fifth of all the county’s circuit judges will be new. Circuit judges handle not just the major criminal and civil cases but all juvenile, family and probate cases. (Three judges handle all family/probate work in the Delray Beach courthouse.) The seven departures represent a collective major loss for the courts in terms of judicial heft and institutional memory.

President Obama picked Robin Rosenberg for the federal bench. Hers is one of the vacancies Scott will fill this month. Another is that of Ronald Alvarez, who won reelection in 2012 even though voters knew that he would reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 before his six-year term ended. Alvarez has been a circuit judge for 21 years, during which time he has been recognized statewide as an advocate for juvenile justice reform.

The losses of Tim McCarthy—the third seat Scott must fill by Dec. 31—and Lewis won’t matter as much. Both regularly scored low in the Bar polls when it came to judicial demeanor. McCarthy’s grouchiness caused the 4th District Court of Appeal to reverse him recently in a divorce case. McSorley, according to the poll, also displayed the hostility known as “black robe syndrome.”

Fine, though, is an ex-chief judge. Brown did well in the Bar polls. And whatever the quality of those leaving, the newcomers will lack experience not just on the bench.

Goodman has spent little time in state court compared to other lawyers who became judges. Ticktin has no jury trial experience, though she has spent a decade at her father’s firm. Feuer worked at Akerman LLP and has advocated for women to have a greater role in the legal profession, but she had to face neither the voters nor the members of the judicial nominating commission who screen and interview applicants for seats not filled by election. In 2000, a lawyer with similar support within the legal profession won a circuit seat unopposed. He did so poorly that he lost for reelection after just one term.

That doesn’t mean Feuer will turn out similarly or that lack of legal experience means someone will be a bad judge. Lisa Small also had worked in her father’s firm and had little time in the courtroom before winning a spot on the circuit bench in 2010, but she scored very well in the 2013 Bar poll.

It does mean that Scott will have to pick well from the candidates who have submitted their backgrounds in detail and have faced questions from the nominating commission and the governor’s staff. Politics shouldn’t matter much, but politics always seems to matter some. There are political back-stories potentially in play.

One finalist is Dina Keever, a former federal prosecutor who ran for state attorney in 2012 as a Republican. Scott is a Republican who likes prosecutors. Keever, though, ran against Dave Aronberg. He is a Democrat, but Aronberg worked for Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi and got financial support from some of the county’s leading Republican donors. The governor’s chief counsel is Peter Antonacci, whom Scott named interim state attorney after Michael McAuliffe resigned in January 2012. I am told that Antonacci talked up Aronberg around the office during that 2012 campaign.

Another interesting name is Manuel Farach, a lawyer who has been a judicial finalist, a nominating commission member and chairman of the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission. He works for Richman Greer, a firm usually identified with the Democratic Party. During the 2000 recount, Gerald Richman unsuccessfully asked a judge to declare all absentee ballots in Martin and Seminole counties invalid because elections supervisors had violated rules concerning the ballots. If Richman had won, the change in vote totals would have given Florida and the presidency to Al Gore.

Also among the 15 finalists are Wellington council member Howard Coates, who ran unsuccessfully for the Florida House as a Republican in 2008, five county judges or magistrates and three state prosecutors.

Palm Beach County’s judiciary long has been recognized around the state for high quality compared to other urban counties. One reason is that the county hasn’t been plagued by the nasty judicial politics seen regularly in Broward and Miami-Dade. Another is that nominating commissions have taken their work more seriously than partisan politics. The county will keep that reputation if Scott keeps politics out of his deliberations. Given the circumstances, the county will enjoy the benefit or suffer the harm of Scott’s decisions for a long time.

Trader Joe’s update

At the Trader Joe’s store in Boca Raton, the power poles still stand in the parking lot.

Last fall, when the city council learned that the lines had not been buried—despite the city’s requirement that they be underground—the council issued a temporary certificate of occupancy for the store, contingent on the developer burying the lines roughly 90 days after Trader Joe’s had opened. That opening was Sept. 26.

I reached out last week to Florida Power & Light. Though it is not at fault, the utility still must do the work. A spokesman told me that in an email, “The project is scheduled to be completed before Christmas.”

How we stack up, income-wise

As part of a fascinating but sobering report on how much Americans are paid,The Washington Post tracked median household income over the last few decades in the nation’s roughly 3,100 counties.

The current figure for Palm Beach County is just under $63,000, or in line with the rest of the country and well above the statewide total. Adjusted for inflation, however, median income—half above that level, half below—peaked in the county 15 years ago, as it did for most counties nationwide and for almost every county in Florida.

One notable exception is Brevard County on the Space Coast. Not surprisingly, income peaked in 1969—the year of the first Apollo moon landing. NASA is not close to what the agency was back then.

Most of Boca Raton and parts of Delray Beach, of course, are above that median income figure. But the report is another reminder that the issue in Florida and elsewhere is not just a recovering economy but the sort of economy the last few recoveries have brought.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.