Last Updated: 6:44 p.m.
The interviews of the 24 candidates for Flagler’s new county judge seat took place, appropriately, in the jury assembly room at the Flagler County courthouse, starting at 8:45 this morning. They went briskly, with few surprises. Despite the interviews’ brevity, they made clearer than not who some of the front-runners might be for the short list that will go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’ll make the appointment later this year.
Candidates who seemed bored, uncertain, unprepared, who had only peripheral connections to Flagler or who spoke of the picture of their children on their socks, who channeled Narcissus more than Solomon or asked, in one case no less than seven times, for “a second chance” (because of a corrupt act in their past), were not likely to make it.
Candidates who evinced a genuine connection to Flagler County, who projected poise, a certain depth of understanding in the job, its judicial and administrative demands, and, not least, who gave their interviewers the sense that they could hold the seat when it’s up for election in two years, were the surer short-list bets.
By the end of the morning session, the strongest candidates appeared to be Craig Atack and Mark Johnson, with strong showings from Nikki Hawkins, Alan Holt, Wesley Flagler and William Hyland Jr. Other candidates were not as convincing. But each of those candidates had some limitations: Flagler’s poise and temperament was likely the most modest and impressive of the morning candidates, for example, but his age and limited judicial experience might give commissioners pause. The others’ connection to Flagler is peripheral, Some of the candidates were problematic, especially Stephen DeLaroche and Lynette Callender, whose application remained incomplete to this day. The afternoon session still had 12 more to go.
The afternoon session had its mixture of strong and odd candidates, with Bunnell Attorney Alicia Washington, who put on one of the stronger performances of the day and who’s made short lists before, getting the only overt, explicit and lavish endorsement from one of the Judicial Nominating Commission members. “There’s a lot of folks I’m talking to that feel like this is your time, and I don’t mind saying this on the record, I hope Tallahassee is listening,” Commissioner Matthew Cline told Washington.
Washington, one of the more affably humorous candidates, also recalled for commissioners a conversation she’d had with County Judge Melissa Distler, Flagler’s only county judge, when Washington was wondering why Distler would look elsewhere. “I would kill for your position.,” Washington said she’d told the judge. “Luckily I don’t have to kill her now.”
The stronger candidates of the afternoon also included Scott Spardley, the Flagler Beach attorney, who had one of the richer resumes of professional and life experiences plus service, Andrea Totten, a long-time Palm Coast resident and prosecutor with air-tight credentials, and Kip Miller, a Flagler Beach resident also with vast experience. Mitch Novas, a perennial candidate for appointment, and Assistant Public Defender Regina Nunnally, who has the longest tenure of any candidate at the Flagler courthouse itself (“I’ve been here long enough to represent two generations of people coming through”) made strong cases, but Nunnally focused more on tenure than judicial savvy while Novas was nakedly, almost distastefully political, boasting of helping other judges get elected, then going on to speak of his political connections.
“I have more senators now backing me up than before, I certainly helped on his campaign,” he said, referring to DeSantis. “I thought I had the governor’s ear last time,” he went on. “I’ll call him, and I’ll call the lieutenant governor for me.” He sounded like a Tammany Hall transplant.
The jury in this case was the nine-member Judicial Nominating Commission for the four-county Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler. They sat arrayed along four narrow tables, facing the one table and seat where the candidates would sit in 15 minutes increments, listening much more than asking questions: most of the candidates, all of them lawyers, are naturally voluble, most of them with self-assurance to spare. Several were known to commissioners. Some were not.
By this stage the 24 candidates have been thoroughly vetted. Each commissioner was assigned his or her share of candidates’ applications to study, references to call, including judges. The commissioners may have conducted their own investigations, including discussions with politicians and other officials to determine strengths and weaknesses, including political strengths and weaknesses.
The commissioners did not ask pat questions, or choose from a prepared list, or ask every candidate the same questions–not even close. But two questions recurred more than others: how the candidate would handle a reelection campaign and be sure to retain the seat in two years, and how the candidate would handle pro se litigants, meaning litigants who, as is often the case in county court, don’t have a lawyer, and represent themselves.
The question about pro se litigants elicited rote answers from almost every candidate who was asked it: treat everyone equally, be firm, be fair, be patient, give guidance but not legal advice.
The question about electability, which this commission is taking very seriously, could not be handled so predictably. In that regard, either candidates have deep connections in Flagler, or the sort of commanding personality and savvy that could compensate for a lack of connections, or they don’t. And in that regard, no one could rival Atack, who also has a 2012 election race for county judge behind him, when he came within a few votes of winning. He lost in a run-off to Distler, who replaced Atack’s mother, Sharon, on the bench, after Sharon Atack’s retirement. So he wasn’t offering a speculative assessment when he told the commissioners: “I believe I could hold this seat if I was appointed to it.”
Atack may have had youth against him in 2012. His nearly decade and a half in the public defender’s office since, and the inherited experience he gained from both his parents, whom he invoked several times this morning (“I don’t feel entitled to this job at all, but I mention them because I learned from them”). Thy were the only county judges Flagler had before Distler, giving him a natural advantage no other candidate could match: alone among them he went through elementary, middle and high school in Flagler, and he has the central-casting poise of a judge, his presence in the room commanding it more than most who appeared in the morning.
He fumbled a question about a new law that will significantly increase the county court docket over the next few years but recovered after realizing what he was being asked. But he had no strong answer for another question, albeit one that reflects more affinity for chumminess than judicial acumen: “You’re not a member of any local bar association. Why not?” a commissioner asked him.
“I don’t have a good answer for that,” Atack said. The way he elaborated did not help his case, considering that he was talking to eight lawyers (the ninth member of the commission is an accountant): “It might have to do with working in the appellate office, I’m around 22 lawyers all day, every day.”
He was stronger discussing his professional background and temperament (“I’m aware of the black robe syndrome”), the demeanor he was describing coming across, and he spoke of his administrative capabilities, a demand of the job a few, candidates touched on but most did not.
Johnson, a mainstay for years in the State Attorney’s Office who often litigates cases in Flagler–but does not live in the county–surpassed Atack in criminal-docket experience, which one commissioner described as “unmatched” among all the candidates. He was also equally commanding and just as comfortable with himself, his interview having the flawlessness of a closing argument without the pointed finger.
But he’s also known as a hard-edged prosecutor, an edge not quite softened by the years that was reflected in his work as a supervisor, and that the commissioner who vetted him picked up on when Katherine Hurst Miller, the panel’s chair, asked him: “I have heard that as a supervisor you have some folks that didn’t like being disciplined by you.”
“With everyone in life you could always look back at a situation and say maybe you could have done this differently,” Johnson said. Without hint of modesty or regret, he said he was not an exception, and compared the matter to sending an email that “strikes somebody a certain way, that they’re offended by that,” illustrating the power of words of body language. “You always have to keep in mind how other people will perceive that.” He added: “Even if you’re in the right how you handle something, you can always do better.”
Sensing that Johnson’s candidacy is almost assured of the short-list, his was among the more sustained interviews, with no silences–as was often the case with weaker candidates–and no softballs from the commissioners.
There was no question in commissioners’ mind, for example, that Johnson wants to be a circuit judge, not a county judge as much (a distinction that does not occur with Atack, who appears intent on staying in that judgeship).
“I have difficulties looking at the complexity of litigation that you handled and believing that you’d find fulfillment in a county court position,” Raven Sword, the only Flagler-based commissioner, who vetted Johnson, asked him.
“I would not go into that position believing that it’s going to be easier than the job In have now, in fact I believe it’ll be harder,” Johnson said. Then he addressed his goal to be a circuit judge: “I won’t lie, it is, but obviously that’s something that would be in the future,” he said.
Andrew Morgan, the vice chair, asked Johnson the question he’d asked one or two other candidates: what if an ambulance driver gets cited for driving in a park in a city where vehicles are prohibited from being in parks?
“I would first be surprised that an ambulance got cited,” Johnson said, clearly formulating an answer before alluding to the law’s or the ordinance’s context. That was the aim of the question: is the candidate a textualist? A relativist? Then Johnson said, “Vehicle means vehicle,” so “as a judge you have to follow that interpretation.”
“Even if it’s to an absurd result?” Morgan asked him.
“If the Legislature passes a law that leads to an absurd result, then that responsibility rests with the Legislature,” Johnson said, paraphrasing one of Oliver Wendell Holmes famous standards (“if my fellow citizens want to go to hell, I will help them. It’s my job.”) “If there’s going to be a fix in that situation, then the fix is with the Legislature.”
The afternoon session had its share of eyebrow raising candidate, like Milan “Bo” Samargya, the only candidate who referred to himself in the third person (twice) when he was not boasting of the “lucrative” practices he ran. Ryan Will, an assistant state prosecutor who ran in the 2018 election for a circuit judge position, has a stellar profile on paper, but he blamed losing his election on the fact that he was running against a woman at a time when many women candidates were winning office. He did not seem to realize that his comment was as sexist as it as resentful, a resentment that echoed again in further comments about his opponent (now Judge) Linda Gaustad, whose win he said he considered to be “a fluke.” He never mentioned that a Florida Bar sanction and a public reprimand by the state supreme court may have played a role in his defeat.
Of course the most anticipated of the interviews, even among some of the commissioners–judging from comments made before the interview–was that of Jim Manfre, Flagler’s former sheriff for two separate terms and a former prosecutor currently in private practice. It was vintage Manfre: a mixture of self-exoneration, when he addressed his past issues with the state ethics commission, moments of brilliance and ease when answering strictly legal and judicial questions, a touching opening that described how a family tragedy led him to the law, and finally defiance and political advocacy: ““I don’t think the county would react very well to an appointment from outside this county,” Manfre told commissioners, then he went on to say that if there were an outside appointment, he’d run against him or her at the next election.
That became a recurring question for commissioners as they invoked Manfre’s pledge again and again to subsequent candidates, asking them if they could take on Manfre, and if they could hold the seat to which they’d be appointed: the commissioners, too, never hid their political intentions, saying openly and candidly that they wanted their recommended choices to defend the seat at the next election.
Commissioners deliberated after the interviews ended a little after 4 p.m. Their short list of up to six names was drafted likely shortly after that, and was to be forwarded to the governor’s office. Those who made it were to be informed by phone. Only then would the panel send out a release announcing the short list publicly. That should take place by Thursday.
With one or two exceptions, and even those just for a few interviews, the day-long exercise drew no audience and only two reporters, including one from Volusia Exposed, which has regularly recorded videos of the interviews and made those of shortlisted candidates available on its website.
Flagler County Judge: The Candidates
|Alexander Alvarez||Flagler||State courts hearing officer||8:45|
|Craig Atack||Flagler||Assistant public defender||9:00|
|John Cary||St. Johns||Assistant city attorney||9:15|
|Lynette Callender||Flagler||Private practice||9:30|
|Joshua Davis||Flagler||Private practice||9:45|
|Steven DeLaroche||Volusia||Private practice||10:00|
|Christopher DelBene||St. Johns||Private practice||10:30|
|Wesley Flagler||Flagler||DCF attorney||10:45|
|Monique Hawkins||St. Johns||Private||11:00|
|William Hyland Jr||Volusia||Private||11:30|
|Mark Johnson||St. Johns||Assistant state attorney||11:45|
|Jim Manfre||Flagler||Private practice||1:00|
|G. Kipling Miller||Flagler||Private practice||1:15|
|James Nealis IV||St. Johns||Assistant state attorney||1:30|
|Mitchel Novas||Volusia||Assistant public defender||1:45|
|Regina Nunnally||Volusia||Assistant public defender||2:00|
|Milan "Bo" Samargya||St. Johns||Private practice||2:15|
|Sebrina Slack||Volusia||Private practice||2:45|
|Scott Spradley||Flagler||Private practice||3:00|
|Judy Stewart||Lake||Private practice||3:15|
|Andrea Totten||Flagler||Assistant attorney general||3:30|
|Alicia Washington||Flagler||Private practice||3:45|
|Joseph Ryan Will||Volusia||Assistant state attorney||4:00|