Commission interviews 17 candidates for Duval judge opening: 'Virtually everyone who applies is a Republican' – Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville’s Judicial Nominating Commission interviewed 17 candidates Friday who were hoping to fill a county judge vacancy. Some of those attorneys faced questions about their conservatism, their judicial philosophy and why a criminal defense attorney vigorously challenged prosecutors.

In Florida, attorneys have two ways to become a judge. One is to get elected, but at least in Jacksonville, rarely do lawyers challenge incumbent judges.

The other way is to get appointed. When a judgeship becomes vacant, a judicial nominating commission will assess candidates and send three to six to the governor to decide. To get the governor to decide, appointees often have to prove their conservative credentials.

“Virtually everyone who applies is a Republican and they say they’re a textualist, and they say they will apply the law,” commission member Patrick Kilbane said on Friday when interviewing applicant Frank Mackoul, an assistant public defender who spent 12 years in the Marines. “Give me more than that. Why you? Why now? Why are you the person that the governor’s looking for for the job?”

“I am a Republican,” Mackoul said with a laugh. “That’s by coincidence. I am a textualist. I am here to enforce the law. Why me? I bring a level of leadership and experience that separates me from the other candidates.”

County judges handle misdemeanors, evictions and small-claims court. They also decide whether criminal defendants should have to pay cash bond to be released before trial.

In Jacksonville, Gov. Rick Scott has favored appointing prosecutors and civil attorneys to judgeships over criminal defense attorneys. But this time, 12 of the 17 applicants had some form of recent criminal law experience, mostly as defense attorneys, but two were current prosecutors and one was a recent prosecutor.

“The criticism about you,” commission member Chip Bachara told Melina Buncome, a division chief at the public defender’s office, “is that you are perhaps overzealous and that perhaps your demeanor would not be appropriate on the bench, that perhaps you don’t give out leeway to the other side where you require the prosecutor’s office to prove every detail, as opposed to allowing some things that would be routinely uncontested to go forward.”

Buncome defended her zealousness, saying she’s merely ensuring the courts won’t later find she was ineffective. “What any of those prosecutors will tell you is, if they get me on a 3.850 [ineffective assistance of counsel claim], they’re very happy because they know I have dotted every I and crossed every T. If there’s a client who has been convicted, they know they can defend their conviction. … I don’t just try a case for today. I try a case for the future if it comes back so we can see a clear record of what happened.”

The state’s 26 nominating commissions are each made up of nine members. Scott gets to appoint five without restriction. The other four he appoints based on recommendations by the Florida Bar. Scott, however, has repeatedly rejected the Bar’s recommended attorneys, who are often viewed as more liberal.

He has said he wants judges who “say what the law is, rather than what it should be,” and he has favored appointing members of the conservative Federalist Society to the nominating commissions and to judgeships.

Jacksonville’s nominating commission asked most of the candidates about their judicial philosophy and what recent appellate decisions the applicant disagreed with. For example, many of the candidates were asked about the White House’s travel ban that has spurred a number of federal decisions limiting its scope. They were also frequently asked their opinion about a recent Florida Supreme Court decision that removed limits on how much money a medical malpractice lawsuit could be rewarded.

The open judgeship occurred when County Judge Eric Roberson was selected for the circuit bench, where he’s now a juvenile judge. Roberson listed his active involvement with the Federalist Society when he applied for that position.

Several of the applicants have already been recommended to Scott before, like the State Attorney’s Office’s legal director, Meredith Charbula, and Rhonda Peoples Waters, a criminal defense lawyer who also handles civil cases.

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