W. Scott Westbrook, Flagler County Judge Candidate: The Live Interview
FlaglerLive | July 28, 2012
W. Scott Westbrook 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: April 20, 1969 in Mt. Vernon, Ohio.
Current job: Assistant State Attorney (Prosecutor), Flagler County.
Years practicing law: 14 Years and 10 Months.
Self-Disclosure Statement with the Florida Bar: Available here.
In 1994 I graduated from Stetson University with honors and started at Florida State College of Law. I maintained a cumulative B average until being diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy in my last year of law school and graduated with a cumulative GPA of 79.48 and falling into the bottom half of my class. My wife and I learned to cope with the diagnosis, and I went on to pass the bar exam the same year. Now, I find myself still able to walk and running for county judge 15 years later.
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?
First, I will always make sure that a pro se defendant understands what he or she is doing by choosing to proceed pro se and (in criminal court) giving up his or her right to an attorney. I will certainly encourage having an attorney in most instances. I will inform pro se litigants and prompt them when necessary so that they are able to ask questions and make statements at the appropriate times during the proceedings. Finally, I will treat every litigant and what they have to say with respect whether or not they are represented by an attorney. The law and justice do not change because an attorney is or is not involved. Experience has taught me the importance of listening to every person when deciding critical issues.
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?
In County Court there are only a few times when it is the job of the judge to determine the credibility of a witness such as in hearings and non-jury trials. In jury trials, credibility is determined by the jury. My experiences as a prosecutor and in life have taught me that the credibility of a witness does not depend on how they are dressed or how artful a speaker they are. Some of the key factors to credibility are consistency, answering questions without hesitation or prompting, eye contact, and body language. I have spent years assessing the credibility of witnesses and evidence in tens of thousands of cases. I will use all of those years of experience in dealing with these issues as the next Flagler County Judge.
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.
Law enforcement officers are charged with enforcing the laws of our state, and everyone in our justice system and our community relies on them to enforce those laws honestly and fairly. That is why it is so serious and detrimental to our justice system if an officer fails to do so. In addition, officers are trained to make observations and to record those observations in their reports or citations. Consequently, when judging an officer’s testimony the court often has the benefit of a report or statement made by that officer at the time of the alleged incident that can be compared to what an officer is saying in a hearing or trial. However, judges should not automatically say that one person’s word carries more weight than another’s. We must judge from the circumstances of each case including the interest of a particular witness in the outcome of the hearing, whether any contradictory statements have been made at prior times, and what if any reports were made that might shed light on the truthfulness of the witness’ testimony. In judging an officer’s testimony, the court generally has the benefit of reports that were written by the officer at or near the time of the incident.
How different are those reports from the officer’s word? In other words, can’t those reports be fabricated or embellished as easily as live testimony?
Reports give a judge something to compare to the officer’s testimony, reports often have information from more than one officer, reports put the officers statements in a context. A judge should use all of these clues and his or her common sense to assess testimony in court.
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 dealt with almost every type of civil matter that could come before a county judge. As a staff attorney in the 10th Circuit and here in the 7th Circuit, I have worked on civil issues ranging from premises liability, personal injury, foreclosure, eviction, contracts, and many more than I can list here. As a civil attorney, I have worked on products liability cases, premises liability cases, civil rights cases, and construction cases among others. I have drafted orders on nearly every type of civil case that might be seen in county court. That said, I believe reading the relevant portions of cases that are supplied by counsel should definitely be part of a judge’s job description. I believe it is possible to read the relevant cases. When there are attorneys involved in the case, it is the job of the attorneys to guide the court to the most relevant cases and how those cases impact the question being addressed.
I will make full use of technology in the courtroom to speed things up and address issues quickly and efficiently. That will include using a laptop in the courtroom to access the clerk’s database and any other accessible databases when addressing cases. I will also be a proponent of creating a wireless network within our county courtrooms so that court personnel can quickly access information on cases and individuals who appear before the court. In addition, as county judge I would be a proponent of using some form of online scheduling system at the very least to make it easier for the public and attorneys to keep track of hearings and court dates. In addition, our courtrooms are open to the public and the public should be able to track what is going on in our courts. The public should be encouraged to visit our courtrooms and observe the workings of their justice system, and I believe allowing observation is a great educational tool for our citizens.
I am a Christian. As a Christian, I believe that every person is important and that I am not more important than another person because of my status, education, or background. My wife and I have regularly attended church our entire lives, and we are active members of First Baptist Church of Palm Coast. I believe in applying the law fairly to every person no matter what their belief system, religion, background, education, status, or appearance. As the next Flagler County Judge, I will strictly follow the law, and I believe that is the best way for judges to avoid making decisions for personal reasons.
There are a number of Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that I feel an affinity to legally and philosophically. Consequently, there is no easy answer to this question. Having spent so much time writing judicial orders, studying our constitution, and studying our history, I would have to say that I most enjoy the writing and reasoning of Justice Scalia, and I find his background fascinating since he was at one time a Law Professor.
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?
One thing that I have learned over the years in life and as an attorney is that career moves based solely on money are almost always bad. I have been eligible to run for a judicial position for nearly a decade and have not attempted to run for such a position or sought an appointment to such a position. Although the salary for a sitting county judge is great, I would not be running for this position if I believed that one of the other candidates for this position could best serve the county where I live and am raising my family.
I don’t consider myself to have any prejudices, unless believing that the United States constitution and founding principles lead to this nation’s greatness and made this nation a force for good around the world somehow fits in that category. There should be no place in our judicial system for people who have prejudices against others because of their belief system, religion, background, status, or ethnicity.
I believe that I have an even temperament, and as most good lawyers, I know how to keep my emotions in check in the courtroom. At the same time, I don’t believe a show of emotion by a prosecutor or any other attorney who litigates is a bad thing. As a prosecutor, I have been known to occasionally show some emotion in the heat of a trial or hearing and sometimes during arraignments as well. I even believe that a show of emotion within reason can serve a useful purpose in the courtroom from making the point that a certain type of behavior simply is unacceptable or encouraging people (especially young people) not to want to be back in the same situation. As for hot buttons, dishonesty and failing to take personal responsibility for ones actions are certainly at the top of my list. As for ego, I do not believe that a prosecutor or a judge should ever make decisions for personal reasons or because those decision will somehow benefit their career or reputation. That is a slippery slope that can lead to disastrous results and is not a recipe for justice. I truly believe that I am not better than anyone else simply because I have a degree or some type of status, and my goal has always been to act in that manner towards every person I encounter professionally or otherwise.
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 agree that the seven judicial candidates are part of a somewhat small community, and most of us have dealt with each other in one capacity or the other in court. As a prosecutor, I have prosecuted cases that were defended by four of my opponents. I have handled no cases defended by Craig Atack, and I have worked with Josh Davis during his three years with the state attorney’s office. So here is my synopsis of my opponents:
- Don Appignani: I have been dealing with Mr. Appignani for a few years as a criminal defense attorney. He and I have been attorneys for the same number of years (nearly 15 years), but I do not recall hearing his name or seeing him in court here in Flagler County more than two to three years ago. He has been professional and respectful in his dealings with me though I don’t think we have ever had an actual trial or motion hearing together. I do not think I can speak to his professional abilities as an attorney. However, he does not have my extensive experience in Flagler County and in Flagler County Court.
- Craig Atack: I have known of Craig most of my time in Flagler County through his mother Judge Sharon Atack. I recall a number of discussions amongst all of us in Flagler County Court regarding his graduation from law school and taking the bar exam. I had been prosecuting in the county courtroom for three years and had been an attorney for nearly nine years when he passed the bar exam and was admitted to the bar as an attorney. Craig has always been respectful and polite towards me in my few dealings with him in the past and throughout this campaign. I cannot speak to his abilities as an attorney since I have never actually had a case with him. However, Craig has been an attorney and public defender since 2006 (just over the 5 years required by law to run for a judicial position) and does not have the extensive experience that I have.
- Josh Davis: I have known Josh for approximately three years. Josh graduated from law school and was admitted to the bar as an attorney in 2006 (just over the 5 years required by law to run for a judicial position). I had been an attorney for nearly 9 years, had spent years as a staff attorney to multiple judges, had practiced as a civil attorney in state and federal court, and had been a prosecutor for three years when Josh became an attorney. Josh was the first attorney to truly share the county court docket with me at the state attorney’s office. I have spent time helping Josh with a number of jury trials and have observed him in the courtroom on numerous occasions. I believe he is a competent attorney. However, I still believe Josh has much to learn as an attorney and as a prosecutor. I cannot say that I believe he has the maturity or experience needed to be an effective county judge, and I have much more experience than Josh as an attorney, as a trial attorney, and as a prosecutor.
- Marc Dwyer: I have known Marc for a number of years as a criminal defense attorney here in Flagler County. Marc and I have had a number of hearings together, and I believe we have only had one trial together. Marc graduated from law school and was admitted to the bar as an attorney in 2002. I had been an attorney for five years, had practiced in state and federal court, and was staff attorney to Circuit Judge Kim C. Hammond when Marc became an attorney. I don’t recall seeing him in Flagler County Court more than a few years ago. Marc has always been polite and civil during our interactions as attorneys and during this campaign. However, Marc does not have nearly as much experience as I do as an attorney, as a trial attorney, and in Flagler County Court.
- Sharon Feliciano: I have known Ms. Feliciano as a criminal defense attorney for five or six years. I have had a number of motion hearings and pre-trials with Ms. Feliciano, but I do not believe I have ever had a trial involving Ms. Feliciano. She has been polite and professional in her dealings with me in court. Ms. Feliciano and I became attorneys in the State of Florida the same year (1997). I would not say that I have had enough experience with her to speak to her abilities as an attorney. I believe she has worked primarily as a criminal defense attorney (mostly in Putnam County) during her time as an attorney in Florida, and she definitely has much less experience than I do as an attorney in Flagler County and in Flagler County Court.
- Melissa Moore-Stens: I have known Melissa as a criminal defense attorney for at least six or seven years. We have had numerous hearings together and at least two trials together. I believe she is a competent and capable criminal defense attorney, and she appears to be a competent and capable family law or divorce attorney. My only experience with her has been as a criminal defense attorney. In that capacity, she usually does a good job of representing her clients. Melissa graduated from law school and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1998, one year after I was admitted to the Florida Bar (1997). We both attended law school at state universities. Melissa attended University of Florida, and I attended Florida State. Although Melissa and I have been attorneys for a comparable amount of time (14 and 15 years respectively), she does not have the extensive experience in Flagler County or in the Flagler County Courthouse that I do. I also believe that I have a more diverse background as an attorney because of the numerous issues I have dealt with as a clerk during law school, a staff attorney for numerous judges, a civil attorney in state and federal court, and a prosecutor for over nine years in this county. Furthermore, I believe that I have a more diverse life experience that allows me to have an added insight into the world and lives of the vast majority of people in our community. Though I have no doubt that Melissa is a good attorney, I believe that my experience in life, as an attorney, and in Flagler County will give me an advantage in this campaign and as the next Flagler County Judge.
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 the most qualified candidate for Flagler County Judge because of my varied experience in life, as an attorney, and as a prosecutor; my belief that every person matters; my belief that no person is above the law or more important than another; my knowledge of Flagler County Court; my integrity and maturity; and my understanding of the role a judge plays in our judicial system. I believe that these are the factors that lead the Flagler County members of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association (which represents the vast majority of officers in our county) to vote to endorse my candidacy for Flagler County Judge.