Monthly Archives: July 2022

Voters’ Guide to the August 2022 Miami-Dade Ballot, Judicial Elections (Part 2: County Court)

In Part I of my Voters’ Guide to the August 2022 Miami-Dade Ballot, Judicial Elections. I provided TMI about the way I make these recommendations. I also discussed the four Circuit Court races on the ballot this August 23 (or earlier if you vote absentee or by early voting).

This post is about the three contested County Court races. Please vote. Most people don’t vote in the judicial elections, so your vote matters more than usual.

County Court

Group 5: Vote for Judge Fred Seraphin (please)

Circumstances alter cases.

Last time around I thought it was a close call, but came down against reelecting Judge Seraphin:

Judge Fred Seraphin (FSU Law) is being challenged by Milena Abreu (Loyola Law School, New Orleans). Judge Seraphim is notable for being the first Haitian-American Judge in Miami-Dade County; he’s also notable for being the judge who wouldn’t let an assistant public defender take a 15 minute break every few hours during a trial to pump breast milk. I find that pretty incredible, although in an interview with the Daily Business Review (now behind a paywall), Judge Seraphin claimed that this was simply a “miscommunication.” Ms. Abreu is a fairly credible opponent, with 15 years experience split between the PD’s office and private practice.

Despite several stories of being inconsiderate about lawyers’ lives or illnesses, Judge Seraphim’s bar poll numbers were good (42% exceptionally qualified, 47% qualified). Ms. Abreau only managed 23% and 54%, which isn’t bad either, but isn’t as good.

Judge Seraphim has a striking personal story, which he features on his web page; being the victim of injustice, he says, has helped him understand justice. It’s a powerful pitch.

A spokesman for the Caribbean Bar Association told the Daily Business Review on Dec 4, 2015 that,

“One of our purposes is to have more Caribbean judges, so it is a concern,” said Devona Reynolds-Perez, president-elect of the Caribbean Bar Association. “It impacts the current diversity on the bench, which is in a sorry state. So we’re sorry to hear that he drew opposition. His appointment to the bench was a historic landmark, so it would be very sad and disappointing to see him lose that seat.

Yet could it be that he deserves to lose? The Herald, unsurprisingly, endorsed the incumbent. I’m not so sure – if a judge who wasn’t an historic first had behaved like that, would we retain him? What does it mean to ‘understand justice’ if you are cruel or unfeeling to advocates in the courtroom?

I can see why a reasonable person would go with experience and a compelling life story, and vote to keep Judge Seraphim – and it is a close call – but I think I’m voting Milena Abreu (line 94) even though it will contribute to the narrative that ‘Hispanic names,’ and especially women with Hispanic names, win judicial elections in Miami-Dade.

This time is different. Let me explain.

Lawyers still complain that Judge Seraphin has a, um, brusque manner on the bench, although his supporters have claimed he’s learned from his mistakes and that the lawyer in the breast milk incident has forgiven him, and the courthouse now has lactation rooms. But that’s not what makes this time so different. The big difference now is the (utter lack of) quality of his opponent.

Quite simply, Renier Diaz de la Portilla has no business seeking to be a judge. Under no circumstances should you vote for him. There are so many reasons why, but I’ll try to restrain myself.

The de la Portillas are one of the big political families in South Florida; Alex Diaz de la Portilla, the candidate’s brother, is a current Miami Commissioner. And this is not Renier Diaz de la Portilla’s first rodeo. He ran for judge in 2014 and lost. (He ran for county commissioner in 2020 and lost. And he ran for state representative twice, winning to replace a seat vacated by his brother Alex, then losing it in 2002.) Along the way RDLP managed a two-year term on the School Board in 1996 and 2006.

When RDLP ran for judge in 2014 (he eventually lost), I had this to say:

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. [….]

[…] 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 […]. 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.

[…] The bar poll is a sorry sight: […] RDLP’s scores were 8/29 with 62% (!!!!) saying ‘unqualified’. Yes, even worse than Diaz.

The Herald endorsed RDLP, although 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.”

In retrospect, that looks too kind, or maybe things are worse now. The Political Cortadito blog has been on the RDLP story, and it’s a doozy:

I’m not going to rehash all that because it’s not pretty, and it’s pretty complicated, nor will I go into RDLP’s history as a public brawler, because there’s a simpler way to demonstrate how just horribly unfit RDLP is for the bench.

We got this mailer the other day.

This makes my blood boil for so many reasons.

First off, this is just clear race-baiting, pandering to prejudice.

Second, Judge Seraphin has never made any secret of the fact he was wrongly arrested as a college student. Indeed, he says this brush with injustice in 1982 is one of the reasons he wanted to become a lawyer and judge.

Third, the fact that a young Black male got arrested for a robbery 40 years ago and then the charges got dropped should tell you something. Like maybe it was clear he didn’t do it?

But never mind all that. Shouldn’t judicial candidates understand the presumption of innocence?

But wait, you might maybe say, how dare I attribute this evil mailer to RDLP? It’s not signed or approved by him, but by “Proven Leadership for Miami Dade County”. Well, the head of that outfit is Nancy Brown, a CPA who also happens to be the head of RDLP’s campaign committee. And don’t hold your breath for RDLP to blame a rogue campaign staffer–this is just how the “Proven Leadership” PAC rolls: they’ve done this sort of thing more than once before.

And RDLP’s brother is all in on the flyer. Here’s what Channel 10 News had to say about it:

MIAMI – A recent political flyer distributed in Miami-Dade County epitomized the meaning of a published “hit piece.” Even more embarrassingly, it included a typo. Instead of “public,” the author wrote “pubic.”

The flyer’s content is peppered with lies. The author falsely accuses Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Fred Seraphin of refusing to “release his arrest record” and of having a “criminal past.”

To support the misleading “criminal past” allegation, the author of the flyer twisted the context of an old news report and likely banked on no one actually looking it up and reading it.

What the journalist actually wrote in that report is that as a college student Seraphin was the victim of racial profiling when he was arrested and falsely accused.

Seraphin was released and prosecutors never charged him with a crime. He was innocent and he has referred to the experience in public as the impetus of his distinguished legal career.

It’s a story that former Gov. Jeb Bush knew well when he appointed Seraphin in 2001 as Miami-Dade County’s first Haitian-American judge. He is running for the County Court Group five nonpartisan race.

Seraphin’s opponent on the ballot is Renier Diaz De La Portilla, who was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2007 and served as a member of the Miami-Dade School Board and a former state representative.

De La Portilla’s well-known Cuban-American brothers are Miguel, a former Florida senator, and Alex, a Miami commissioner who admitted to being behind the information on the flyer.

The Proven Leadership for Miami-Dade, a Political Action Committee based in the south Dadeland area, funded the deceitful propaganda. It’s the sort of behavior the Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee frowns upon.

And, oh yes, RDLP is endorsed by Hialiah Mayor Esteban Bovo. Yes, the very Estaban Bovo who not only continues to insist on the ‘big lie’ that Joe Biden is not the President, but also recently tweeted a genuinely disgusting image insulting large swaths of Democrats, Blacks, Trans persons, and others. No way I’m republishing it, but the morbidly curious will find it here.

I apologize if I’ve gone on too long about this, but I think it would be a terrible travesty if RDLP became a judge. I could have said more. It seems, for example, there’s another mailer. But enough.

If you cast just one vote for judge, vote line 99 to re-elect Judge Fred Seraphin.

Group 19: Elect Judge Kolokoff

Group 19 finds two-year veteran Jeffrey Kolokoff facing challenger Lisette De La Rosa. (Another woman with a Hispanic name challenging an appointed Judge…see a pattern?). Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Judge Kolokoff after 14 years of experience in a combination of practice as an Assistant State Attorney and a private law firm.

From what I’ve read, Judge Kolokoff is doing a decent job. While the challenger has experience — 20 years of it — and seems well-intentioned, I don’t see any reason to think she’d do a better job. The Herald endorsed Kolokoff.

Group 42: A Good Choice to Have

This one is hard, but in a good way. Both candidates look good. Judge Scott Janowitz (a UM Law grad) is an energetic judge who has already contributed meaningfully to streamlining court administration. He may not be modest, but he’s energetic, and his appointments to various administrative jobs suggests that his fellow judges have confidence in him.

On the other hand, Alicia Privolos has a lot going for her too. More than any of the challengers on the ballot (other maybe than former Judge Bloch in group 52), Privolos has a background that suggests she could hit the ground running. She’s been a prosecutor for 17 years, and was given top jobs at the State Attorney’s office, most recently as head of the Human Trafficking Unit. She’s tried a lot of cases. And she has some presence that will translate well to the bench.

In a recent judicial forum someone asked Judge Janowitz what we should make of his membership in the Federalist Society. In an answer that gets a point for honesty and loses one for being an apparatchik, Janowitz admitted sheepishly that he’d only joined because that is what it takes to get appointed as a Florida judge these days. Make of it what you will.

The Miami-Dade League of Prosecutors endorsed prosecutor Priovolos over former prosecutor Janowitz. So did the Herald.

I am going to vote for Janowitz on my keep-competent-incumbents principle, but I understand why not everyone will agree, since on some metrics Priovolos is more impressive. Whichever one of these candidates win, we win. Given the general state of the judicial elections this year, that’s a very strange feeling.

Posted in Law: Everything Else, Miami | 15 Comments

Voters’ Guide to Miami-Dade Ballot, Judicial Elections (Part 1: Circuit Court)

Absentee ballots are out, so it’s time for some recommendations for the upcoming judicial elections which will be held on August 23, 2022, the same date as the partisan primary elections. Please vote. And remember that even a lot of people who turn out on primary day don’t bother to fill in the judicial part of the ballot. So your vote really counts.

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.

As I’ve often 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 uses appointment plus retention elections for Supreme Court Justices and District Court of Appeal Judges, but not for trial courts. The Governor can appoint judges to fill vacancies between elections, but otherwise those jobs are straight up elected, so this election pits one or more challengers against the incumbent unless, lacking opposition, the incumbent wins reelection automatically; 19 (!) Circuit Court judges and 12 (!) County Court judges were indeed unopposed this year.

This year we have four Circuit Court races and three County Court races in August. Both are trial courts, but with different jurisdiction. All seven races pit a challenger against a sitting judge. Retention elections for the higher courts will be on the November ballot, as would runoffs if any of the trial courts had had any multi-candidate races.

Here’s what my recommendations are based on:

  • My personal view is that I will vote for an incumbent judge unless there’s reason to believe they’re doing a bad job and the challenger would do better. Fortunately, that only happens occasionally. But as you will see below, it does happen….
  • 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.
  • I look to see if the candidate filed a voluntary self-disclosure form with the state. Many don’t.
  • I’ve become decreasingly reliant on third party sources. I used to rely a lot on the Dade County Bar Association Poll in which lawyers rate the candidates’ qualifications. But the response rate is low enough that I’ve come to wonder about it; that said, if there’s a large majority one way or the other that tells me something. Sometimes, I’ll also look at the Cuban Bar Association poll also, although again the turnout isn’t amazing.
  • Similarly, I’ve soured on the reliability of endorsements. Where once SAVE Dade seemed like a fairly reliable guide, now rebadged as SAVE, it doesn’t seem to me to be as reliable as I used to think it was, in light of a string of I thought erroneous endorsements.
  • The Miami Herald makes endorsements. In the case of elected officials I think the decision-makers there are so terrified of annoying establishment candidates that their endorsement only means something if they buck an incumbent. And when did that last happen? But in the case of judicial races, I’ve come to think maybe they do a better job.
  • And oh yes, I read local blogs. Pre-COVID I would listen to gossip too, but I don’t get out so much these days.
  • Last, but very far from least, I think any campaign that is benefiting from third-party slime-ball mailers, and fails to denounce them instantly, is worth voting against for that reason alone. Note that this rule does not apply categorically to a hypothetical negative mailer authorized and signed by a campaign. If a campaign is willing to go negative on the record, then it depends on the accuracy and relevance of what they are saying. But that doesn’t happen very often.

Circuit Court

Group 3: Re-elect Judge Lody Jean

The Group 3 race pits incumbent Judge Lody Jean against challenger Teressa Cervera. Despite four years of experience, this is Judge Jean’s first election: Gov. Rick Scott appointed Jean to the County Court in 2018, and Gov. Ron DeSantis elevated Jean to the Circuit Court in 2020.

Judge Jean has, AFAIK, performed ably on both courts, and she deserves to be elected, or re-elected (depending how you see it).

My opinion that Judge Jean should be retained does not turn on the the fact that she is the first Haitian-American woman on the Miami-Dade Bench, although I suppose that might influence some voters. Nor is it (much) swayed by the kerfuffle over challenger Cervera’s alleged attempt to play the Miami name game. The Miami name game is a long-abused practice in which candidates who have practiced under non-Hispanic, usually Anglo, names, suddenly hyphenate or change their names to something Hispanic in order to run for judge on the — sadly justified — theory that some low-information voters will vote for Hispanic names over others. It’s not a good look for a would-be judge. “Teressa Cervera” practiced law since 2012 under the name “Teressa Tylman”. But, unlike some candidates who have played the name game in the past, at last Cervera/Tylman can fairly say that Cervera is and has been her legal married name.

No, the problem with Cervera/Tylman isn’t her name. It’s her resume. She just lacks key legal experience relevant to being a trial judge — she has never, it seems, tried a single case to a jury. That’s a big deal. (C/T suggests that “hundreds of hours” of evidentiary hearings makes up the shortfall. It doesn’t.)

Judge Jean’s solid performance would be enough for me; the case is more than closed by the challenger’s lack of a relevant experience.

Vote line 91 – Lody Jean.

Group 20: Re-Elect Robert Watson

Group 20 pits another previously unelected incumbent, Judge Robert Watson, against a  (this time, competent) challenger … with a Hispanic name. Watson was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for five years, and then in private practice for five years before Gov. DeSantis appointed him to the County Court in 2019, and then to the Circuit Court in 2020. His challenger Brenda Guerrero, formerly known as Brenda Gitchev Guerrero, at least has significant trial experience, although she did not file a self-disclosure statement with the bar. Her campaign website describes her experience as:

I graduated from St. Thomas University School of Law and have worked for nearly twelve years in public service. I began my career as an attorney in Legal Aid, working for two years helping low-income individuals meet basic needs, removing barriers to justice through civil legal assistance. Then I worked as a Miami-Dade County Assistant State Attorney for nearly ten years protecting the rights of our children. After several years working as a private attorney and litigating over 1500 trials to verdict, I now seek to work as a Circuit Court Judge in public service.

Pretty good resume. And we can always use more former Legal Aid lawyers on the bench. If this were an open seat, I might be tempted to vote for Guerro. But I’m still going with the very competent incumbent.

Vote Line 93 – Robert Watson

Group 34: Elect Challenger Ariel Rodriguez

This is a case where I think we should replace a sitting judge. Incumbent Judge Mark Blumstein is challenged by Ariel Rodriguez, a bankruptcy attorney. When Mark Blumstein ran in a four-way race in 2016, I wasn’t a fan. The deciding factor against Blumstein was his excessive use of photos of him in his Navy uniform. Maybe not strictly illegal, but not savory. The voters saw otherwise.

Now, Blumstein is up for re-election and unfortunately, he’s still pushing photos of himself in a navy cap, even though he’s no longer a JAG. I see it on billboards. I don’t like it. Blumstein also has made some controversial decisions leading to reversals, most notably empaneling a six-person jury in a murder case over the objections of both the prosecution and the defense. That lead to an emergency appeal, and a summary smackdown by the 3rd DCA. There’s been several other reversals too, but that alone is quite telling.

Challenger Ariel Rodriguez has a slightly different background from the typical candidate. Here’s key parts of his website’s summary of his credentials:

Ariel Rodriguez is a federal government attorney who has been practicing for almost twenty-three years in the areas of commercial litigation and bankruptcy.
[…] He earned his […] law degree, cum laude, from Notre Dame Law School. [ … ]
He has served as a Guardian ad Litem in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, and a guest lecturer for the Cuban American Bar Association’s Civility and Professionalism Committee, […] and for local universities. Ariel is also a member of the Federalist Society and Miami Dade Bar and a director of the Miami Catholic Lawyers Guild.

The Federalist Society is not my favorite credential these days, but I don’t think it’s as big an issue for a trial judge as for, say, the Florida Supreme Court (where, currently, it appears to be a prerequisite to nomination, but that’s another story).

The trouble is, I think Blumstein hasn’t shown he deserves retention; Rodriguez sounds more than competent, and is certainly experienced.

So, I suggest you vote line 95 for Ariel Rodriguez.

Group 52: Tough Call

Incumbent Oscar Rodriguez-Fonts is challenged by former Judge Jason Bloch. There are some reasons to be dubious about both candidates.

When Rodriguez-Fonts ran for Circuit Judge in 2014, I endorsed the other guy. In 2016, when Rodriguez-Fonts ran again, I said it was a close call, but endorsed his opponent; Rodriguez-Fonts won that one. Now he’s up for re-election.

The biggest knock on Judge Rodriguez-Fonts is that the very day after the US Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision reversing Roe v. Wade, the sitting Judge made a (long-planned) appearance at Christian Family Coalition Florida’s annual Legislative Victory & Candidates Breakfast where he made a short speech. The Miami Herald quotes the CFC’s Twitter feed as calling the event “a morning of rejoicing”; its article described the event as:

A who’s who of South Florida Republicans and conservative activists filled a hotel ballroom that was brimming with unapologetic pride the morning after the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that gave women the legal right to have an abortion.

“I just want to say that this morning, you woke up in a nation that is pro-life,” said Anthony Verdugo, the founder and executive director of the Christian Family Coalition Florida.

The crowd — which included Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, Republican state House members, leaders from Miami’s right-wing Moms For Liberty group and other GOP candidates running for county and state office — burst into cheers and applause.

Was this a proper thing for a judge to do? The speech was reported as “non-political,” so it’s not a per se ethics violation. The timing was accidental — but atrocious. On the other hand, not going would surely have been seen by an important voting block as a snub. Even so, attending and speaking was, to say the least, pretty tone-deaf under the circumstances. It can’t help but make you wonder about his judgement–or his guts to do the unpopular thing which would have been not speaking.

It would be easier to counsel against voting for Rodriguez-Font if only his opponent was better. Jason Bloch has shown some poor judgement too. After being appointed to the bench, and apparently doing a perfectly fine job there, he faced one of the least qualified candidates to run for judge in some time. He not only ran a bad campaign, he sued his opponent  for failing to disclose her financial interests in an erotic hotel. She won anyway (Hispanic name?) and became Judge Marcia Del Ray; sadly she got re-elected this year without an opponent. Meanwhile Bloch lost his lawsuit; the judge in that case said it should have been an ethics complaint not a lawsuit.

For what it’s worth, Bloch is independently wealthy (very), and has spent much of his time since 2016 doing pro bono work for nonprofits and in eviction cases. He’s a board member of Legal Services of Greater Miami. (Rodriguez-Fonts was an Assistant City Attorney and and Assistant Public Defender before becoming a judge.)

So both candidates could be accused of poor judgment at one point or another in their careers. Both have other virtues. Both seem to have done decent jobs of running a courtroom.

The Herald endorsed Bloch. So did the Miami-Dade League of Prosecutors and SAVE. The Christian Family Coalition gave Rodriguez-Fonts its highest ratings; the police and some other unions endorsed him too.

I think it’s actually a hard call. I will probably vote for Bloch, but I’m wavering.

In Part II, coming soon, I’ll discuss the three County Court elections. Stay tuned for the attack mailers….

Posted in Law: Everything Else, Miami | 3 Comments

Working On It!

Absentee ballots are out, so it’s time for my guide to judicial elections. I’ve been fighting a (non-COVID!) cold, so I’m behind schedule. And I probably need to cut my screed on all the reasons you should vote line 99 to retain Judge Seraphin….most of which are about all the reasons you should NOT (please please please don’t) vote for his unfit challenger, political animal Renier Diaz de la Portilla.

Posted in Law: Everything Else, Miami | Comments Off on Working On It!


Bob Dole

Remember when Bob Dole seemed like the meanest Republican?

Sadly, in politics what you name things can have powerful long-term effects. Consider what things might be like if the estate tax were commonly called the “child justice tax” or the “level playing field tax” or something like that; instead we have the party of money (more on what we should call it below) making great strides, if only in firming the spines of the faithful and semi-faithful, by working hard for decades now to brand the estate as the “death tax”. And lo and behold, there’s a lot less estate tax than there was when I was a kid.

Similarly, for many, many years, going back at least to Bob Dole, the ‘own-the-libs’-type Republicans have made it a point to call the majority party the “Democrat party”. I’m not entirely sure why, maybe just because “Democrat party” sounds so much harsher then “Democratic Party”? Anyway, maybe it’s time to take a leaf from that book and start referring to the second-largest national party as the “anti-Democratic” party. After all, its national electoral success are based not on the popular vote, but the functional gerrymandering of the Senate, of state Congressional district lines, and of the Electoral College. Plus, a major tactical objective of the Anti-Democratic party is to suppress turnout by reducing weekend voting, cutting polling locations and hours in the hopes of creating long lines and discouraging voters, banning ballot drop boxes, and enacting voter ID rules whose true purpose is to deter voters.

Now, consider the post-Dobbs world. Will we still refer to the sides as “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion”? I hope not. We should call the opponents of a right of a person to make intimate decisions about their body what they are: the proponents of “forced birth”. And to the hardest-core who would ban abortion in cases of rape or incest, ask them why “rapists should be allowed to choose the mother of their child?”. These may sound harsh today, but that is what it takes.

Names matter.

Posted in Politics: US | 1 Comment