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Atack vs Moore-Stens: An Attorney’s Evaluation Of the County Judge Race, and a Response

| October 26, 2012

Melissa Moore-Stens and Craig Atack at a candidate forum hosted by WNZF Wednesday. (© FlaglerLive)

Editor’s note: The Flagler County Court judge election is likely the single most consequential local election on the Nov. 6 ballot: local government representatives in the aggregate wield powerful influence, but no single individual has as much of a daily mark on local residents’ lives as a county or circuit judge. And a judge, once elected, is often assured of a life tenure on the bench. The following perspective, by Paul Guntharp Jr., a local attorney, is presented with that in mind. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, both candidates read the article before publication, with the understanding that they had no editorial say about it, but both were granted the right of simultaneous reply. Craig Atack chose to exercise that right. His response appears below Guntharp’s article. Melissa Moore-Stens elected not to respond.

By Paul Guntharp Jr.

I have been a trial lawyer for over 25 years. I practice in Flagler County and throughout the Seventh Judicial Circuit, as well as in Federal Court.

I am very concerned about the election of our next Flagler County Judge. Not only who will serve for the next six years, but because once elected, judges usually remain in office for a long time. My experience has been that there are greater differences between judges than the general public would ever imagine, just as there are greater differences between doctors than most of us realize. The reason is that only professionals in the field have the knowledge and experience to accurately evaluate their performance.

attorney paul guntharp jr. palm coast

Paul Guntharp Jr.

The differences between judges are primarily in their knowledge of the law. Yes, knowledge of the law. Judges do not learn to be judges by being a judge. Which is not to say that judges don’t learn, but that the depth and breadth of their knowledge of the law was gained while they were practicing law, as an attorney.

The difficulty with judicial elections is that we are all too familiar with partisan political elections. We argue the relative merits of policies and positions, are influenced by advertisements and vote for the candidate who we think will do the best job, consistent with our beliefs. Judicial candidates don’t debate. The Rules of Ethics established by the Florida Bar prohibit judicial candidates from engaging in partisan politics. Judicial candidates are not permitted to tell how they would rule on hypothetical subjects. Their campaigns are supposed to focus on their experience and qualifications. The overriding objective of the Florida Bar and bar associations throughout the country is to promote public confidence in the independence and impartiality of our system of justice.

After graduating from law school, I learned that it took many years of experience in many different areas of the law to develop the knowledge and understanding required to be a competent attorney. In fact, I think that is why it is called the “practice,” because we continue to learn and, hopefully, improve our skills and knowledge over many years.

To be a good judge, one must first be a good lawyer and, of course, a good person. That is what the Judicial Nominating Commission does when a judge is to be appointed by the governor, rather than elected. In addition to ethics, the JNC examines all aspects of a candidate’s legal experience and submits the names of the most qualified for consideration. That is what I suggest that voters do. Before you cast your vote, ask yourself who would experienced lawyers, judges and the JNC select? To make that decision, consider the qualifications and experience of each of the two candidates and vote not based on advertising or name recognition, but on qualifications and experience.

Of the two candidates for Flagler County Judge, one–Melissa Moore-Stens–is a former prosecutor who is Board Certified, and has 14 years of experience in both the public and private sectors. The other–Craig Atack–has only practiced as a public defender for six years. One has run her own business and has firsthand experience in the many issues which arise in the private practice of law. The other boasts of having processed 3,500 misdemeanor cases over the first two and a half years of his practice. That is about one hour and 20 minutes per misdemeanor, not counting distractions. It seems to me that, at least two of those years did not contribute to learning anything new.


Another difference between the candidates is education. One candidate graduated from law school with honors and passed the bar examination the first time she could take it. The other candidate will not reveal how he did in law school or explain why he was not admitted to the Florida Bar for almost a year and a half after graduating. Performance in law school is not only an indication of character and intelligence, it forms the foundation for an attorney or judge’s knowledge of the law throughout his or her legal career. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was given to me by an experienced, successful lawyer just before I entered law school. He told me that his only regret was that he had not studied harder in law school.

In the interest of full disclosure, you may want to know that I have contributed $100 to the campaign of Melissa Moore-Stens and that I will vote for her to be our next Flagler County Judge. However, I do not know either of the candidates personally. I have never had a case or professional transaction with either of them. In fact, before the primary election, I would not have recognized either if I saw them in the grocery store. My interest is solely that Flagler County have the best judge. To this end, I have prepared a comparison of the experience, qualifications and evidence of personal discipline and hard work of the two candidates, which I hope voters will consider before they cast their vote.

I have no doubt that both of the candidates are honorable, nice people. But this is not a popularity contest, it is a question of who is ready to make important decisions based upon their experience and knowledge of the law. And remember, if one of the candidates wants your support, he or she should trust you with the truth, to know who they are, the breadth of their experience and how they have performed in every aspect of their legal education and practice of law. Advertisements and endorsements by family friends are not qualifications or substitutes for experience.

A Comparison of the Qualifications of the Two Remaining Judicial Candidates for Flagler County Judge

Melissa Moore-Stens
Craig Atack
Year of birth
1974
1976
Years practicing law
14
6
Law school
University of Florida
Florida International University
Year graduated
1998
2005
Grade point average
3.16
Unknown
Class rank
9
Unknown
Passed Florida Bar
Passed first time
Had to take the Bar exam "more than once."
Admitted to the bar
9/25/1998
9/25/2006
Board Certified
Yes
No
Undergraduate
Florida Atlantic University
Unknown
Practice area
Private Practice, Criminal Defense, Family Law
Public Defender
Note: Mr. Atack graduated from Florida International University School of Law May 22, 2005, but was not admitted to practice for almost a year and a half after he graduated. Law students want to take the Bar Exam as soon after graduation as possible.

Sources of information: Candidate disclosures to FlaglerLive, The Florida Bar website and Wikipedia. This table was provided by Paul Guntharp Jr. as part of his article.

Paul Guntharp Jr. has been practicing law in Palm Coast since 1989.

Craig Atack Responds:

First, I want to thank Flagler Live for the opportunity to participate in this discussion about my candidacy. It’s no secret that I grew up in Flagler County and that I love this County. In fact, what I have enjoyed most about campaigning is knocking on thousands of doors and speaking with citizens in Palm Coast, Flagler Beach, and Bunnell. During our conversations, a pretty constant question that comes up is: what makes you the best candidate for Flagler County judge? Most of us are not used to selling ourselves all the time or talking about the things we’ve accomplished. Many attorneys will tell you
they’re better advocates for their clients than they could ever be for themselves.

Craig Atack. (© FlaglerLive)

But there’s no question I’m proud of my accomplishments – my Master’s degree in education, my time as a teacher, my time working on a construction crew rebuilding the pentagon after 9/11, and certainly, when I followed in my parents’ footsteps and became a member of the Florida Bar. But with respect to why I can best serve this county as its county court judge, it’s important to get some outside perspective. I’m proud to say that I’ve been endorsed by many of the pillars of the Flagler County community, and I encourage all of you to take a look at my website to read what these amazing people are saying about my candidacy.

With respect to the discussion of my candidacy, I appreciate the writer’s candor in indicating that, although he has not met either Ms. Moore-Stens or me, he endorses my opponent. In so doing, he is impressed by and relies on Ms. Moore-Stens’ academic record. As many of you know, I believe there is quite a bit more to this position than the fact that we both happen to be lawyers. Certainly, we each possess the necessary credentials to qualify for the position: we are both members of the Florida Bar and have practiced law for the requisite number of years. Importantly, even though there is a
legal requirement that to be a judge you have to be an attorney, there is more to being a judge than just being an attorney. While my academic experiences inform my perspective, I certainly agree with the writer that, after graduating from law school and passing the Bar, it is the actual practice of law that teaches you how to be a lawyer.

There are as many different ways to practice law as there are lawyers. I chose to practice as a public defender. Because of my position as a public defender, I handle in a year a caseload many lawyers don’t handle in a lifetime. Although the writer disdains the idea that someone who has only practiced as a public defender could be a member of the judiciary, my contention that the accelerated experience associated with being a public defender qualifies me for the bench was recently ratified by the governor’s selection of assistant public defender Judith Davidson to be a county court judge in
Volusia County. Actually, the writer endorses the selection process conducted by the Judicial Nominating Commission and the governor. This is the process that selected and appointed Judge Davidson, who practiced as a public defender for nine years prior to her appointment, and served as a mentor to me during her time with our office.

Prior to her time as a public defender, Judge Davidson was a teacher. Similarly, I taught the American system of government (civics) to 9th grade students in an inner-city school prior to beginning my career as a lawyer. For those of you who are teachers or who deal with children and young adults on a regular basis, you’ll understand that this real-world experience teaches us patience, common sense, and fairness. These are the exact attributes a judge must possess, especially in county court–the people’s court–which is as much about consistency, fairness, and practicality as it is anything else.

As a teacher, I also wanted my students to understand that they had the ability to overcome adversity. Many believed that because of their personal circumstance or past they could not accomplish great things. The writer, like any lawyer, has selected information he believes is important to proving his assertion that my opponent is the more qualified candidate. In so doing, he overlooks many of the things I believe will make me a great judge, such as my Master’s degree in Education, and experience in teaching, which includes time as an adjunct instructor of business law and ethics at Daytona State College.

I am happy to address the writer’s criticism that I am not as qualified to be a judge because I did not have my opponent’s grade point average at a different law school and had to take the Florida Bar Exam more than once. In fact, this is no great secret. More importantly, it is proof positive of the writer’s position that graduating from law school and passing the Bar exam are not a good metric for judging an individual’s potential to be a great advocate or member of the judiciary. It is my lifetime experiences, my actual work, and the reputation I have built as a trial lawyer during my time in the Bar that most accurately characterize my legal acumen. The idea that we are all human should not be foreign to the legal community. Everyone has the ability to accomplish their dreams, and I hope my story will inspire people to believe that, regardless of what happens in their lives, if they persevere they will accomplish great things.

I was lucky to learn qualities like the importance of perseverance from my parents. The lessons they taught me that serve me so well in life will similarly serve me well on the bench. How to treat all people I interact with with respect. People who, as a judge, I might be seeing on their worst day. To listen to all of the information before reaching a conclusion – to hear people out. These things I will do not because I’m a lawyer, but because it’s what the people of this community – what every person – deserves. Moreover, I’m proud to say I’ve been endorsed by someone who knows what it means
to be a judge in this community. Judge Kim C. Hammond served as Flagler County’s Circuit Court Judge for 31 years. Actually, when he became a Judge, he was younger then than I am now. When he was appointed to the bench he had been a lawyer for about seven years. There is no question that Judge Hammond was the right person for the job. I’m honored to say that, in endorsing my candidacy, Judge Hammond thinks I’m the right person for the job, and said:

Craig was raised and educated in the Flagler community and I have known him all his life. Craig has all the required and needed qualities to fully perform the duties of this office. He possesses integrity, good temperament, intelligence and knowledge of the law and I believe that he will make the wise and sometimes difficult decisions required by this position. Craig is willing to do the hard work necessary to deal with the ever increasing caseload in the County Court and I am confident that he will perform his duties in a thoughtful, courteous and respectful manner.

I have an expansive resume, and I’m extremely proud of my accomplishments including my courtroom and real world life experience. I would be honored to bring these credentials to the bench in my hometown. There’s no mathematical formula for selecting a judge. Hard work, real world experience, and the proper temperament are fundamental, and I have exhibited these attributes throughout my life’s work.

Sincerely,
Craig R. Atack
Candidate for Flagler County Court Judge.

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29 Responses for “Atack vs Moore-Stens: An Attorney’s Evaluation Of the County Judge Race, and a Response”

  1. dwferg says:

    Thank you for your input /comments– It will be used as a reference in my decision for whom to vote. Both appear to be worthy candidates, one has significant experience/attributes advantages–the family connection may/may not help Mr. Atack’s candidacy-name recognition alone should not provide an inherent advantage, but it always seems to do just that- It will be an interesting race to watch if Rep.’s “cross over” ala the Holland choice—-

       0 likes

  2. Carjo says:

    As I said in my previous post, I have been following this race carefully. After reading this guest article and Mr. Atack’s response I started asking around about the topics raised in the article and the response. What I have found out is the following.

    Melissa has numerous awards for her pro bono work, even when she was a prosecutor and wasn’t even required to do pro bono work. Craig has not received any award for pro bono work. I don’t think Craig is the only one with an understanding of and caring for people. Melissa is a mother of two, and Craig does not have children. Melissa has lived in this community for 12 years, and Craig previously admitted to the News Journal that he lives in St. Augustine Beach. Further, he is running for County Judge not social worker or camp counselor. People have a right to have their disputes resolved according to the Law, and knowledge of the Law is key. The reason the statue of Justice is blind is because it would be best without such influences. This isn’t an inheritance; it is an important position in our government which should be filled by the most qualified individual.

    Let’s break down Craig’s “endorsements.” Irwin Connelly was Sharon Atack’s law partner prior to her becoming appointed as Judge. And, with all due respect, Craig has never practiced law in front of Judge Kim Hammond because Craig has never practiced law in Flagler County. So, Judge Hammond would not know about Craig’s knowledge of the law or skill as a lawyer. Judge Hammond, like the other “pillars of the community” he mentions are all longtime family friends of Sharon Atack, people whom have neither seen Craig practice law nor have been represented by Craig.

    Just thought I would share this with you all.

       8 likes

    • Lulz Daily says:

      Hahahaha! Good one Carjo!! And this article was written by someone who has never seen either of them practice law and yet it gets front page play on Flaglerlive and Gunthrop is made to sound like an expert on the subject matter. You’re quick to throw out the Atack endorsements, are we throwing this one out too?

      And speaking of endorsements, I find it hillarious that mellissa moore has practiced law in Daytona and sometimes Flagler for years and this was the best endorsement she could come up with? Why won’t anyone else in the legal community put their name behind her?????

         12 likes

  3. Informed voter says:

    From a quick glance at the financial reports Melissa has at least 27 lawyers or lawfirms contributing totaling roughly $4815, Craig 12 with roughly $3150. Additionally, I believe the local newspaper endorsed Moore-Stens as well.

       7 likes

  4. Carjo says:

    @Luiz: With respect to the endorsements, please do not believe that Mr. Guntharp is the only person who is supporting Melissa’s candidacy. First, if you look at the financial reports filed by Melissa (available on the SOE’s website) you will see that many of her donors are area attorneys. Now, if they weren’t supporting her candidacy they wouldn’t donate to her campaign. Second, if you visit Melissa’s campaign page on facebook and scroll through it you will find several videos containing endorsements not only from local attorneys but also community leaders. Third, I have heard that most of Melissa’s primary opponents are supporting her and actively encouraging the people who voted for them to vote for Melissa. Finally, last Saturday the Palm Coast Observer publicly endorsed Melissa.

    I was not “throwing out” Craig’s endorsements, I was merely trying to put them into context. Endorsements are obviously a wonderful thing to have but they do not necessarily equate to the experience and qualifications of the candidate. As I said in an earlier post, we are in essence hiring someone to do a job. Recommendations from one’s peers are fine, but the final decision should be the resume of the candidate.

       6 likes

    • Lulz Daily says:

      Silly me! I get so confused. I thought we were talking about endorsements! You have educated me. Yes, Moore got a lot more money from private law firms than Atack. You have my vote!

         4 likes

  5. Informed voter says:

    Check your thesaurus “endorse” , “back” or “support” are synonyms. Carjo had nothing to do with my post. I was simply stating that 27 local, practicing attorneys obviously have faith in Melissa Moore Stens and, in fact, financially supported her. You found it “hilarious” that no local attorneys supported her. Quite frankly, if I practiced in Flagler I would be hesitant to make a donation to either campaign as you may very well be practicing in front of the opponent. I think it speaks VOLUMES. The reality of the matter is that the people who are posting on this already know who they are voting for so it’s kind of a moot point.

       10 likes

  6. Andrew Clark says:

    From reading these various perspectives, I expect that many of those commenting have no experience in the daily routine of county court. Legal knowledge is far, far less important than patience, dedication and people skills. The best county judges really are more like counselors or mediators than anything else. The ability to relate to all the people appearing in the courtroom, not just those with law degrees, is extremely valuable and often lacking in those we put on the bench.

    I believe that the ‘qualifications’ that should be compared between county judge candidates are not the types of things that can be easily quantified or written down. However, I think the most important qualifications for a judge is a lack of ego and a genuine desire to serve. This is where Craig Atack excels, he is running for the right reasons.

    Several folks have mentioned Mr. Atack’s connections in the legal community. I would suggest you consider how easy it would have been for Mr. Atack to use those ties to obtain a (much) higher paying and less thankless job rather than spending six years as a public defender. Let him continue to serve his community as county judge.

    Andrew Clark
    Board Certified Criminal Trial Attorney

       5 likes

  7. Carjo says:

    @ Andrew…”Legal knowledge” is not important for a judge? Really? Interesting from a lawyer. I would prefer to have a judge that has the legal knowledge required for the position as opposed to one that does not.

    I do agree that the ability to relate to people from all walks of life is a good thing. Having said that, have you looked at Ms. Moore-Stens’ experience? She has done a huge amount of pro-bono work, is a guardian ad litem to children in need, is a mentor to teen-agers, volunteers in the Flagler County school system, is involved in more than one charitable group in Flagler County, and has assisted numerous clients/women in tracking down “dead beat dads” to get them to pay their child support. In addition, check Ms. Moore-Stens’ web site to see the numerous awards and accolades she has received that are related to this volunteer work. Can Mr. Atack say the same? Does this work not give her experience working with people from all walks of life?

    A “lack of ego”? Do you bring ego into the equation because you believe that all successful professionals have an ego? I know many successful people who have absolutely no ego whatsoever. But I must ask, do you have an ego? You signed your comment not as “attorney at law” but “Board Certified Criminal Trial Attorney”. (The same certification Ms. Moore-Stens holds that Mr. Atack does not.) Why is that?

    Yes, Mr. Atack chose to work as a public defender. Kudos to him. Ms. Moore-Stens chose to spend her career first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. What’s the difference? To be a criminal defense attorney (which the public defender is) requires a great commitment to the justice system and a strong belief in the Bill of Rights. Just because an attorney is in private practice does not mean they are financially better off that someone who works for the state. It’s actually a riskier career path because there is no guaranteed salary. You get clients based on your reputation as a lawyer and the job you can do.

    “a genuine desire to serve”. Have you spoken to Ms. Moore-Stens? Has she told you that she has no desire to serve? I think not. Anyone who runs for elected office obviously has a desire to serve the community they LIVE in. Where does Mr. Atack live? Not Flagler County. He says he cannot practice here because of a conflict of interest with his mom being a judge here. Ok. But is the commute to St. John’s County that onerous? I mean most people I know drive up to St. Augustine on the weekend just to have dinner.

    While I appreciate your support of Mr. Atack I do believe that you are trying to paint over Mr. Atack’s lack of experience by throwing out subtle insinuations about Ms. Moore-Stens’ character. Bad form sir.

    Their experience speaks for itself. It’s up to the voters of Flagler County now. I only hope they make the right decision.

       6 likes

    • Andrew Clark says:

      As it seems as though you’ve gotten what you wanted, this may fall on deaf ears, but I will respond in any case. You might have noticed that I never mentioned Ms. Moore-Stens, and contrary to your assertions I didn’t insinuate anything at all about her. The points you raise about her are all valid reasons to support and vote for her. All I was doing was talking about the candidate I do know and responding to the attacks of his qualifications that were made by the original editorial and in several comments.

      I stand by my assertion that legal knowledge is not that important in a county court judge. My experience has been that very few judges are especially strong in that area and often rely on the parties to provide the appropriate arguments. All judges make mistakes on the law at times, and the proper temperament and the lack of ego that I mentioned are crucial for these times, when a judge is willing to admit their error and correct it.

      I appreciate your desire to attack me personally for mentioning the certification. I mentioned it solely because the original editorial mentioned that as some kind of a talismanic qualification for the county judge. I say ‘big deal’, the certification doesn’t mean anything with regards to qualification to be a judge, and I know because I’m also certified.

      It seems that your goal in this response is to attack and deride my comments by pretending that I said negative things about Ms. Moore-Stens. All I did was give the reasons why I believed Mr. Atack was a good candidate. The fact that you took this tack and are such an ardent supporter of Ms. Moore-Stens is literally the most negative thing I know about her.

         1 likes

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