Melissa Moore-Stens is the only county judge in Flagler–the judge who handles the county’s entire misdemeanor docket. It is proportionately one of the heaviest dockets in the state, if not the heaviest, according to the Supreme Court’s measures. For more than two years, Moore-Stens and local government agencies have been pressing the Legislature to help.
Today, the court administration for the Seventh Judicial Circuit–which includes Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam–said help was on the way: senior judges will start picking up a share of the docket next month and do so twice a week. A likely judge who’ll be seen again around the Flagler County Courthouse: J. David Walsh, who retired three years ago and has been picking up some cases since. Justice Anthony Kennedy is not as likely a sighting.
Senior judges will also help with the civil docket, which has been hampered by a vacancy on the bench caused by what amounted to the Supreme Court firing Scott DuPont in late June over improprieties in and out of court. Flagler’s bench was realigned in march in light of DuPont’s absence, as he had been ordered out of the Putnam and Flagler courthouses, where he worked, in February.
Flagler’s legislative delegation–Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner–last year had secured $100,000 to pay for the extra help. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the measure, but signaled that he would not veto it again this year. He did not.
A senior, or retired, judge is paid $350 for a day’s work. The $100,000 is equivalent to 285 working days for a senior judge.
“The caseload in Flagler County Court has been growing steadily over the past decade,” Chief Judge Raul Zambrano, a former felony-court judge in Flagler, was quoted as saying in a release issued by the court administration this afternoon. “Despite everyone’s best efforts, it was becoming increasingly clear that additional judicial resources were necessary.” He added: “We would like to thank Senator Hutson and Representative Renner for helping ensure that Flagler received this dedicated allocation to help with the workload in county court.”
The Flagler County Commission had also provided significant lobbying help, placing the request for an additional judge among its top legislative priorities in the past two years and urging Hutson and Renner to follow through. Moore-Stens’s overwork even got local community leaders involved, namely after a well-publicized tiff between a former Democratic Party chairman and Moore-Stens while she was chairing a canvassing board meeting in October 2016: Ralph Lightfoot flatly accused the judge of falling down on the job as canvassing board chair, which led to a stern rebuke from the judge, who described her workload. (See and hear the exchange here.) Lightfoot then became one of her leading champions to get her help, doing his part to lobby local leaders.
The appointment of senior judges resolves only part of the issue in Flagler. Gov. Rick Scott has yet to appoint a judge to fill the DuPont vacancy. First, the Judicial Nominating Commission for the Seventh Judicial Circuit must solicit applicants, meet, interview the applicants, and make a recommendation to the governor.
On Tuesday, Scott re-appointed two members of the nine-member commission and appointed one new member. The reappointments include Palm Coast attorney Raven Sword, a partner at Livingston & Sword. She was renominated by the Florida Bar for a term ending July 1, 2022.
Andrew Morgan of St. Augustine, an equity partner with Canan Law, was also re-appointed. L. Charlene Matthews of Daytona Beach, a senior attorney with the State of Florida Office of the Attorney General’s Office, and also nominated by the Florida Bar, was appointed, taking the place of Tance E. Roberts, who had been the commission’s vice chair.
The nominating commission has not yet set a schedule for the nomination process of a new judge. The help for Moore-Stens may have this ironic twist: she has been interested in seeking a circuit judgeship, and may well end up being among those applying to fill the Seventh Judicial Circuit vacancy. She has just been re-elected to the position, drawing no opposition.