Downballot Guide – Miami-Dade 2014

Lots of ink gets spilled on the Governor’s race. But the ballot we face in the election on Aug. 26 is complex, and has a lot of important races on it. This post covers the downballot – the judicial elections. I also have a separate post on the primaries and non-political races for the executive branch but if you’re reading this you probably made up your own mind on most of those races. These are more obscure to most voters.

There are eight judicial elections on the August 24, 2010 ballot in Miami-Dade (see your sample ballot here). Unlike most law professors I know, I support the idea of judicial elections at the state level as a reasonable democratic check on what I believe should be the expansive power of judges to interpret the state and federal constitutions. Although as you’ll see below, that opinion is being very sorely tested by one the contests in this election.

As I’ve said before, if it were up to me, I’d have the executive branch pick judges with legislative confirmation, followed by a California-style retention election every few years in which there would be an up or down vote on the incumbent. If the vote was down, the executive would pick a new judge. It seems to me that the right question is “has this judge done a good (enough) job” — something voters might be able to figure out — rather than asking voters to try to guess from electoral statements which of two or more candidates might be the best judge.

Florida’s system, however, pits one or more challengers against the incumbent or else, lacking opposition, the incumbent wins reelection automatically (as happened with many of the judges whose terms expired this year). There are also open seats when the incumbent retires. My personal view is that I will vote for an incumbent judge unless there’s reason to believe they’re doing a bad job. Fortunately, that only happens occasionally – and isn’t an issue this year.

After supporting incumbents, my other rule of thumb in sizing up candidates before even getting to the details of biography and practice experience is that in all but the rarest cases of other important life experience we ought to require at least ten years of legal experience from our lawyers before even considering them as judges. Fifteen years is better. I will very rarely support a judicial candidate fewer than ten years out of law school. It just isn’t enough to get the experience and practical wisdom it takes to be a judge.

Circuit Judge, Group 16

Thomas Cobitz v. Stephen Millan. Open seat. Two candidates with a lot of legal experience. They both sound pretty good. The Herald endorsed Millan (more than 20 years experience) but so too did the Christian Family Coalition. To be honest I don’t know that much about either of them and thus don’t feel confident about this one. Cobitz (UM JD ’89) served years as an administrative traffic hearing officer, was also vice chair of the Dade County Bar Association Criminal Courts Committee, and is a member of the City of Miami Civilian Investigative Panel, which gives him more community chops than Millan. AFAIK, SAVE Dade didn’t endorse in this race. An attorney poll found that slightly more lawyers rated Cobitz Exceptionally Qualified or Qualified than Millan (23/57 to 18/59).

Circuit Judge, Group 26

Judge Rodney Smith is not only the incumbent but by almost all accounts a very good judge. Accept no substitutes. Almost everyone, the Herald, SAVE Dade, Christian Family Coalition included endorses Smith. Even Rumpole likes him. The one negative is the murmuring that he’s too friendly to insurance companies, being a former employee of Untied Auto (a big supporter – expending $227,000 – in independent expenditures in support of his campaign). Indeed, that insurance tie – to a not-very-claims-friendly company – seems to be the main reason some people support challenger Christian Carranana’s campaign (14 years out of law school). Even so, I’m sticking with the incumbent.

Circuit Judge, Group 27

Mary Gomez vs. “Al” Milian. Open seat. Gomez has 19 years courtroom, mostly in Family Law, experience. She has, according to the Herald, a track record of good works in the community. Milian – son of a prominent Cuban exile leader – is not IMHO very impressive. I didn’t care for him at all when he ran against Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle a decade ago – and regular readers will know that I’d be all in for a serious challenger to KFR. He wasn’t it. AFAIK he still isn’t it. The Herald endorsed Gomez and I agree. SAVE Dade endorsed Milian…despite his being famous for a 1993 incident in which he referred to jurors as “lobotomized zombies”(leading to criticism from the 4thDCA) and “buffoons”. OK, 1993 was a long time ago. But still. A judge? Really? The attorney poll put Gomez a bit ahead of Milian (Exceptionally Qualified/Qualified was 13/51 Gomez to 13/41 Milian).

Circuit Judge, Group 58

Open seat. Martin Zilber v. Oscar Rodriguez-Fonts. Both are in their early 50s. Zilber is in private practice. Rodriguez-Fonts is a former assistant city of Miami attorney and Miami-Dade public defender. Both the Herald and SAVE Dade endorsed Zilber. I’ll go along with the crowd here.

Circuit Judge, Group 67

Judge Fleur Jeannine Lobre is the incumbent, but was appointed to fill out a term so she’s yet to win an election in her own right. The cognoscenti think she’ll lose becasue voters think she has a funny name, and the challenger, Mavel Ruiz, 53, a criminal defense attorney and former assistant public defender, doesn’t. While word among lawyers on Judge Lobre is not as wildly positive as the word about Judge Smith in group 26, it’s fairly positive on balance, and certainly doesn’t rise anywhere near to the level that gets me to vote against an incumbent judge. (I promise this isn’t because Lobre is a UM Law Grad!) Both the Herald and SAVE Dade endorsed Lobre.

Circuit Judge, Group 70

This race is the main reason why I’ve delayed writing this guide so long. I really don’t like either candidate. On one side we have Renier Diaz de la Portiilla, charmingly slimed by his detractors as the Fredo of his very political family. On the other side we have Veronica Diaz, from the Miami City Attorney’s office, who is also the subject of a slime campaign. Both sides have been working the bloggers and working the mailers to voters. I got a handful.

Trouble is, both candidates have biographies that provide material. Diaz has more experience as a lawyer but the ethics mud sorta sticks. Renier Diaz de la Portiilla is a former member of the Miami-Dade School Board, where his tenure is remembered for his proposal that the public schools offer Bible study. He followed that with a plan to drug test students – that one passed. In a sign of the electorate’s good sense, he’s been an unsuccessful candidate for other political offices since then. He’s been late to file various electoral-related papers such as a campaign finance report. A somewhat debatable ethics complaint just got filed against him – almost certainly by people associated with the Diaz campaign. And his current employment as a lawyer – with well less than a decade’s experience – has been notable for its very low earnings of under $40k/ year, suggesting a certain lack of free-market demand for his services. Diaz on the other hand has some sleazy items in her biography. She was one of many public employees to accept free VIP tickets ($900 face value) from the Ultra festival – a firm that did business with her employer. She also escaped censure on allegations that she got a third party to send city work to her fiancé’s law firm – in substantial part because the county code does not consider a fiancé to be an immediate family member subject to its anti-nepotism rules.

This really is a sorry choice. It makes the case for appointing Judges about as strongly as any Judicial race in recent memory. The bar poll is a sorry sight: Exceptionally Qualified/Qualified is 14/34 for Diaz with 54% saying unqualified. But RDLP’s scores were 8/29 with 62% (!!!!) saying ‘unqualified’. Yes, even worse than Diaz.

The Herald endorsed RDLP, althought it admitted that he “doesn’t necessarily inspire the confidence of having deep and broad experience that voters should have in those they send to the bench.” SAVE Dade endorsed Diaz. I’ve gone back and forth, back and forth on this one, and finally ended up, I think, resolved to vote for Diaz, mostly on the basis that she’s at least more likely to know how to run a courtroom while RDLP himself only claims to have litigated a few cases. But what a choice to have to make.

County Judge, Group 19

There are three candidates. Jacqueline Schwartz is the incumbent. She’s endorsed by the Herald – and by the Christian Family coalition. The challengers are Rachel Glorioso Dooley (17 years experience) and Frank Bocanegra (six (!) years experience). Again, I’m voting incumbent. Then again, Dooley has support in the bar and outpolled Swartz on competence: 39% saying Schwarz was not qualified but only 21% saying that of Dooley. Dooley was endorsed by the league of prosecutors. There’s some case for a change here, but not quite enough for me.

County Judge, Group 36

Nuria Saenz is the incumbent. Victoria Ferrer (only 9 years experience) is the challenger. I don’t know much about Saenz, but most of what I know is positive and her bar poll scores were better than Ferrer’s, of whom 42% of the lawyers polled said she was unqualified. The Herald endorsed Saenz. The Christian Family Coalition endorsed Ferrer. From my point of view this is no contest: a competent incumbent vs. a lawyer without enough experience. (Saenz does get criticized for having strong support from United Auto while having many cases involving it on her docket. But that’s how our system works when we have elected judges.)

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