Would you like to be a Flagler County judge? If you’re a lawyer and have been a member of the bar for the past five years, if you live in the area, if you think you have the right temperament, if you want the certainty of a $152,000-a-year salary (not including benefits), if you want your own personal body guard and you can deal with the politics of the appointment process and an election sooner than you think, then here’s your chance–if you apply by Aug. 9.
Flagler County has one county judge, a seat held by Melissa Distler since 2012. officials have been lobbying the Legislature for an additional county judge for the past several years to relieve Distler of a uniquely heavy docket. The Legislature approved the addition in the last session after Palm Coast’s Paul Renner, the Republican rising through the House’s leadership ranks, shepherded a bill that got the governor’s signature.
The position is now funded. But it must be filled by appointment until the next general election. Pretenses of impartiality aside, the process is highly politicized, thanks to changes instituted by the Legislature at then Gov. Jeb Bush’s urging not long after he took office in 1999. Until then, Florida’s judicial-selection process outside of elections was a national model of balance and objectivity thanks to reforms under Gov. Reuben Askew. Three members of judicial nominating commissions were chosen by the Florida Bar, three by the governor, and the remaining three were chosen by the six appointees, thus minimizing the role of politics in favor of community service, professional reputation, experience and ultimately, quality.
That changed in 2001 when the governor with the Legislature’s help abrogated the process and made all appointments to nominating commissions himself. The Bar still has a voice, but it only recommends its choices for four of the nine seats. The governor appoints all, thus giving him more room to stack panels his way.
Flagler County is in the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which also includes Volusia, Putnam and St., Johns. Only one of the nine members of its Judicial Nominating Commission, attorney Raven Sword, is a Flagler resident. The chairman, Katherine Hurst Miller, is based in New Smyrna Beach. (The previous chairman, Christopher Green, was based in Jacksonville.)
Miller’s office is coordinating the nominating process, issuing guidelines and setting up the interview schedule. Here’s how it goes:
Applicants must have been a member of The Florida Bar for the preceding five years, a registered voter, and must be a resident of Flagler at the time
he or she assumes office. You can apply here, or at the Florida Bar, or download the application at the foot of this article.
- Send an original completed paper version of the application and attachments to:
Katherine Hurst Miller, Chair
Seventh Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission
Wright & Casey, P.A.
340 North Causeway
New Smyrna Beach, FL 32169
- A PDF version of the completed application and attachments, including the executed Florida Department of Law Enforcement form; with a color photograph either in .jpg or .gif format; and
- A redacted PDF version of the application excluding all exempt information under Chapter 119, Florida Statutes, and other applicable public records law.
The PDF files should be submitted on either a flash drive or CD-R and should be named so that the applicant’s name and “redacted” or “original” is readily
apparent in the name of the attachment. All questions in the application must be answered fully and completely. Applications should include current and accurate contact information for judges, co-counsel, opposing counsel, and references because those individuals will likely be contacted.
The deadline for submission of the application is August 9, 2019 at 5 p.m. Incomplete or non-functioning electronic copies of the applications and applications received after the deadline may not be considered.
Interviews are tentatively scheduled for Aug. 28 and 29 at a time and location yet to be determined.
The commission will then deliberate and shortlist applicants, sending that list to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will then make the appointment. That can take weeks or months.
A judicial appointee must serve at least a full year before he or she faces an election, and that election must be in a general cycle, or an even year. Assuming DeSantis makes the appointment before Nov. 1, the new county judge will get that first year on the bench but then will have to run in the 2020 general election, when the seat will be open for all qualified candidates. DeSantis could play politics and delay the appointment until later in November, thus ensuring that his appointee serves on the bench through 2022 before facing election, thus building more incumbent immunity.
The new judge is unknown but the position is already causing political ripples locally. A new judge means the addition of a bailiff dedicated to him or her, as a bodyguard–a position the sheriff requested from the county commission, and will be granted. It means the addition of about four support positions at the courthouse, two of them funded locally, two of them funded by the state, according to Clerk of Court Tom Bexley. It also means re-configuring space allotments at the courthouse to accommodate the new judge and his or her new courtroom (there are several courtrooms available, the building having been designed for growth over decades).
And it means re-configuring some space in light of current space allotments involving the sheriff’s personnel, temporarily exiled from an operations center of its own and occupying several thousand square feet at the courthouse. Bexley is expected to deliver a proposed space plan regarding the sheriff’s needs, to be in effect for the next few years, to the county administration Wednesday.