Don Appignani, Flagler County Judge Candidate: The Live Interview
FlaglerLive | July 28, 2012
Don Appignani is one of seven candidates for Flagler County Judge in the Aug. 14 primary election.
The county judge election is a non-partisan race: all registered voters in Flagler County are eligible to cast a ballot in this case–whether Democratic, Republican, Independent or from a minor party. You may cast a vote regardless of the district, the town or the subdivision you live in. If one of the seven candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate will be the winner, and will replace County Judge Sharon Atack, who is resigning at year’s end.
If none of the candidates wins with 50 percent or more of the vote, then the top two vote-getters will head to a run-off in the Nov. 6 general election.
FlaglerLive submitted 14 identical questions to the seven candidates, who replied in writing, with the understanding that some follow-up questions may be asked, and that all exchanges would be on the record. Follow-up questions, when necessary, appear in italics, and may be awaiting answers.
A style note: some lawyers are in the habit of capitalizing quite a few words that would not normally be capitalized in journalistic style. The capitalizations and similarly, specifically legal stylistic quirks have been preserved as a reflection of each attorney’s style.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- Law school
- Disciplinary issues
- Fair treatment: pro se defendants
- Determining witness credibility
- Is a cop’s word more trustworthy than a defendant’s?
- Knowledge of civil law
- Technology and docket efficiency
- Religion and interpretation of law
- Legal role model
- For love of law or money?
- Your prejudices
- Your temperament
- Judging your opponents
- Judging yourself
Place and Date of Birth:Feb. 26, 1953, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Current job: Sole Practitioner, Donald Appignani, P.A., Palm Coast.
Years practicing law: 15
Self-Disclosure Statement with the Florida Bar: Did not file one.
I went to the University of Miami School of Law in the Evening Division from August, 1993 through May, 1997. My GPA was 3.086 and I graduated with honors. Due to working a full time job in to support my family, and going to law school in the evening, I never paid attention, nor cared what my class rank was. I attended Rutgers University for undergraduate school and my GPA was 3.83 and graduated with highest honors.
Yes I have. I had several bar complaints filed against me over the years. All but one was found to be without merit. In 2002 I entered into a consent decree (an agreement) for a Public Reprimand with the Florida Bar with what I felt at the time was in the best interest of my clients and me. This issue arose in 2001. To this day I truly feel that I did what was in the best interest of my clients and that I did nothing wrong. For more information please see the Flagler Live July 25th article on this issue. My response to the allegations is included at the bottom of that article and lays out the whole in detail.
The Live Interviews:
Flagler School Board
Flagler County Sheriff
3. Many of your defendants in county court will be representing themselves (pro se). What is your strategy for dealing with pro se defendants who will be facing polished attorneys? How will you ensure that they will be treated as fairly, and what allowances will you make for their self-representation, if any?
I am assuming the question relates to civil disputes. On almost every occasion criminal defendants are represented by private counsel or the public defender.
Pro se litigants commonly come to court without a full working knowledge of the law, rules of evidence, or pretrial procedures. I feel a good judge would have the patience, courtroom decorum and experience to explain to pro se litigants what they need to do in order to properly present their case, such as having their evidence and witnesses ready for trial.
By taking a little more time to explain to pro se litigants why certain procedural rules and the rules of evidence have been developed over time, pro se litigants would have a better understanding of the litigation process and feel they had their day in court.
County court judges often deal with non-jury trials and a good judge often relaxes the rules of evidence due to the fact that the judge is trained to be able to weed out what is relevant, what is hearsay and other evidence that might not be admissible during a jury trial.
If feel it is warranted, I would also urge the pro se litigant to find an attorney. If the person is unable to hire an attorney I would point them to the pro bono entities that do this type of representation.
4. As a judge, one of your most important tasks will be to determine the credibility of witnesses. What factors will you rely on to determine credibility? How do you see the difference between a witness in dreadlocks and tattoos as opposed to one in an Armani suit?
One must look at the demeanor, the body language and character of the witness to determine credibility. Also we must look to the consistency of their testimony. Determining the credibility of people in general is a skill that is developed over time. Life experience can greatly enhance this skill.
I would treat ever person that comes before the court, whether a witness, plaintiff or defendant, with the proper respect due from the court. The way the person is dressed, or the way they look, should have no bearing on their testimony.
5. Along the same lines, it is often the experience of defendants in court that between the word of a cop and the word of a suspect, in he-said-she-said cases, the cops’ word will generally prevail. Explain first why you think that is, and explain to what extent, if any, a cops’ word would carry more weight in your court room than a suspect’s.
This statement is not entirely correct. The trier of fact is not supposed to give a police officer any more weight with respect to their testimony than a non police officer, or a defendant. Look at all the jury instructions set forth during trials and will see this instruction in every instance. The fact that a witness is a police officer would never carry any more weight than a non police officer.
The person’s demeanor, body language, character and consistency of their testimony are what should prevail in reference to the person’s testimony.
6. Understanding that judges do not—cannot—possibly read all their cases but rely substantially on lawyers’ arguments, and that you’ll face a considerable number of civil cases, how much civil law do you know? What areas of civil law have you practiced?
I have a wealth of civil litigation experience. I represented clients in areas from small claims (disputes under $5,000.00) to very complicated civil matters in federal courts where the courts are very strict on the civil rules of procedure. I have litigated in federal court against the largest law firm in the world – the U.S. Department of Justice, and have been successful in jury trials in this area.
I have represented high ranking federal law enforcement officers, such as DEA and INS special agents with disputes against their employer in both federal court and administrative forums such as arbitrations and the U.S. Merit System Protection Board. I have also represented hundreds of clients in bankruptcy, and many clients in family law matters, probate, civil rights, landlord/tenant issues and others areas of the law. I have also done federal appeals and have argued in front of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta – one of the 13 or so courts just below the U.S. Supreme Court.
To what extent will you rely on lawyers to guide your interpretation of law in civil matters?
Judges cannot always know all the law. No one can. A good lawyer will research the issue, draft a legal brief or motion, setting out the relevant facts and point the judge to the relevant law. They should also supply the Judge with the case law where they derived their legal argument. It is the Judge’s job to weed out what is actually relevant and on point and make sure the lawyer is correct with respect to their legal argument. Only then can the Judge make an informed decision. A good Judge does not like to be overturned by an appellate court, and therefore needs to be sure the ruling is the correct one.
I have been using the electronic filing system in federal courts for about ten years now. The state courts are just starting to use a similar system. The electronic filing system is one of the best changes that have come into the legal field in decades, maybe centuries. If is faster, cheaper, and gives both attorneys and the public the ease of access to court files.
The 7th Circuit currently utilizes online scheduling for circuit court hearings. I would like to use this as much as possible in county court. A drawback in count court is the many pro se litigants may not have the knowhow or expertise to schedule hearings online.
I like to keep my religious beliefs very private. I was raised a catholic, believe in God and try to use the golden rule in every aspect of my life. I strive to treat every person the same way I would like to be treated.
I believe highly in not allowing my religious beliefs to enter into my interpretation of the law. The U.S. Constitution has set forth the separation of church and state. I have sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution, and therefore, my religious beliefs should not be brought into the courtroom.
I also believe very strongly that one’s ideologies, philosophies, prejudices, and personal beliefs have no business in the courtroom. I promise that I would strive to be fair and impartial and treat every case on its own merits and not bring my personal beliefs into the courtroom.
Although I do not always agree with his opinions, and I might not agree with his philosophy, I have a newfound respect for Justice John Roberts. In several of his most recent decisions, he has made his decision on how he sees the rule of law, even though it shows in his writings that he is adverse to the statute or law that he has upheld. He has ruled the way he felt was right even though it may have been unpopular. I feel it is very important for a judge to not bend to political and public pressure and I would strive to do the same.
10. Attorneys, as in so many professions in today’s dismal economy, are hurting for work. Not many can pull in the guaranteed $134,280 a year you’ll be making as a county judge. Understanding that you’re obviously doing this for the good of your community and for the most noble motives possible, you’re also human, you likely have or will have a family, and it’s no secret or sin that some of you are running to land a steady salary. To what extent is that guaranteed income driving your desire to be a county judge?
If I were to have the honor of serving the people of Flagler County as their next County Judge I would be almost 60 years of age when the six year term begins in January. At this stage of my life I am looking more at the health benefits and pension that one would derive from this position as opposed to the salary.
Besides, about ten years ago I taught myself how to do bankruptcies. In the past few years I did okay. I also came into contact with hundreds of local people who took a heavy brunt from the recent economic downturn and in turn have developed somewhat of a compassion for many of these people who have worked hard their whole lives, and through no fault of their own, found themselves in a very precarious and highly stressful situation. Helping people in these types of positions can be very rewarding at times.
My prejudices come in the form of how people act. If they treat and people fairly and with respect I will treat them the same. My one pet peeve is dealing with people who do not listen when spoken to — also people who do not learn from their mistakes. One of the definitions of insanity is doing things over and over and over again the same way, and expecting different results.
I am 59 years of age. Along with my wife we have raised four children and currently help with the raising of one of our four grandchildren. We have had so many ups and downs in our life that it takes a lot to rattle me. Ask anyone that knows me about my demeanor. I have developed the patience, the demeanor, the competence and the experience to this job the right way. I have practiced before hundreds of judges and have seen many very good judges and a few that should never have been a judge. There are a few that I have practiced in front of that have been excellent with respect to their patience and demeanor. I will strive to emulate these types of judge.
13. You’re part of a small community of lawyers who know each other, have likely faced each other in court or seen each other in action while waiting your turn, have been hearing and speaking about each other through the professional grapevine, and, being lawyers, likely have strong opinions about each other. In other words you know more about each other, especially regarding relevant matters in play here, than any member of the press or public could know. Enlighten us: give us, in your words and assessments, a brief synopsis of each of your opponents’ capabilities, strengths and foibles as you understand them, and whether, in your view, each is qualified to be a county judge.
I feel all seven of the candidates are qualified to do a good job if elected to the position of county court judge. They are all good people. To date, I have run a positive campaign and I intend to keep it that way. That is all I am going to say on this matter.
14. Do the same for yourself: Dispensing with such matters as heredity and lengths of stay in Flagler County—which, we hope you agree, are as irrelevant to the law as skin color and culinary tastes—what makes you the best qualified for this position?
I am just a regular guy that happens to be a lawyer and would like to be your next county judge. I have been a motorcyclist since age 17 and am part of the vast local motorcycle community where we constantly hold fundraisers for people in need. I have the most life experience of all the candidates. I have a wealth of legal experience in many different areas, probably more than any other candidate. I have a very good sense of humor and do not let many things bother me. I have the experience, demeanor, competence, patience and compassion to make an excellent judge. I feel that with these qualifications I can best relate to the people that will come before the county court. I would be honored to represent the people of Flagler County as their next county court judge if given the chance.