Former Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre’s candidacy for county judge was dead on arrival when he walked into the interview room to face the nine members of the Judicial Nominating Commission Wednesday afternoon at the county courthouse in Bunnell. There’d been audible snipes in the air before the interview, later reflected in the serrated questions he faced.
Yet Manfre’s 21-minute performance (six minutes over the limit set for the 24 candidates who appeared before the panel all day) was also an example of his resilience as a public figure, his nakedly thin skin, his skillful advocacy–for himself, but also for Flagler’s home-grown candidates–and his continuing ability to influence the conversation, even from outside the circles of power. (See a full account of the 24 interviews here.)
And it was an audition for a run for judge in two years.
After his appearance before the nominating commission, commissioners invoked his name to almost every other subsequent candidate because of Manfre’s unexpected pledge that he might well run if the governor does not appoint a Flagler-based candidate. Only 10 of the 24 candidates live in Flagler. The question posed other candidates betrayed at least some apprehension that Manfre might make good on his pledge, and would not be a minor factor at the polls despite a checkered ethical history and a prosecutorial disposition at odds with judicial temperament. (See the full video of the interview below, thanks to VolusiaExposed.)
Manfre’s appearance and the Judicial Nominating Commission’s questions, in sum, reflects to what extent both the appointment and electoral process that seats judges in Florida, and perhaps in Flagler in particular, has become a rank political exercise that mocks the judicial canon intended to keep the process neutral and non-partisan.
Video: Manfre’s Full Interview
The commission’s nine-member panel drafted its short list of candidates from the 24 last night and forwarded it to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office. DeSantis is expected to make an appointment later this year, and almost certainly after Nov. 6, so as to ensure that the candidate has at least two years on the bench before having to defend the seat in an election.
The county judgeship is new. It’ll be Flagler’s second. The Legislature approved permanent funding for it earlier this year. The question remains whether the governor will appoint a candidate from Flagler, or an import from St. Johns or Volusia. Judging from his written remarks, Manfre’s appearance before the commission was a premeditated attempt at making a public statement about making a Flagler-based appointment a requirement, couched though it was in his own pitch for the job.
“My first experience with the judicial system came when I was 7 years old,” he began. He told the story of his father getting struck by a drunk driver, his two years of rehabilitation before he could walk again, and of the family, including Manfre, being at the sentencing hearing for the other driver. He could be sentenced only to $100 fine at a time when harsher penalties hadn’t made it on the books. The judge apologized to the Manfres. “That injustice and its consequences to my family has motivated me all my life to pursue a career in criminal justice, to right the wrongs a family endured. It explains in part my career as an investigator in the prosecutor’s office, a prosecutor and a sheriff.”
He spoke of his “unique” skills, his 20-year history in Flagler, his involvement in civics, business and politics, and not two minutes into his statement, he launched into advocacy, not necessarily for himself: “I believe residency should be a threshold issue for any candidate you recommend or select,” Manfre said, reading from a written statement. “I do not believe there’s any sitting county court judges in any county that was not a resident of that county for some period of time before they ran or were appointed. As far as I know all county court judges have been Flagler County residents before being appointed or elected. There are multiple qualified candidates from this county who have applied for this position, and to select any other in my opinion would be against precedent an injustice to Flagler county residents and the Flagler Bar.”
He then returned to speaking of his own accomplishments as it relates to his work in the courthouse and with judges there, his “40 years’ experience in the judicial system,” his present private practice in family law, civil litigation and other fields, before addressing his history with the Florida Ethics Commission. The commission fined him $6,200 at the end of a protracted case brought against him by his former finance director at the sheriff’s office. The commission found he’d misused an agency credit card and failed to properly report staying at Rick Staly’s mountain cabin as the gift that it was. Staly was his undersheriff at the time. He was elected sheriff in 2016. (He did not face Manfre directly in the election. Manfre lost in the Democratic primary.)
Though he signed the agreement that levied the fine, Manfre has never conceded the validity of the ethics charge and again revisited that battle in his interview Wednesday as if it had just ended. “That was unfair, unjust, political in nature,” he said. “The bottom line was this was about an accounting error that the sheriff’s office’s chief financial officer made, that she would not take responsibility for.”
Katherine Hurst Miller, who chairs the Judicial Nominating Commission, told him she was concerned that he discussed his party affiliation in a News-Journal article, “because candidates for judicial office aren’t allowed to disclose how they’re registered.” Miller was referring to Canon 7 in the Code of Judicial Conduct, the ethical guidelines for the conduct of judges and candidates for judge. By law, a candidate for judge may not “Publicly represent or advertise herself or himself as a member of any political party,” though anyone else, whether media or political parties, are free to disclose the candidate’s political affiliation (it is usually a public record).
“I’m not a Democrat,” Manfre told the News-Journal’s Frank Fernandez. “I’m actually an NPA and I have been for a year and a half.” (NPA means no party affiliation.) Manfre told commissioners that the reporter had asked him why he thought he had a chance, being a long-time Democrat, with a Republican governor making the appointment.
Miller’s concern about Canon 7 would have been more credible had commission members themselves stuck to its principles. They did not, repeatedly questioning candidates about their political viability as electable candidates when the seat will be up for election. They never objected, or raised Canon 7-type questions nor did they object when another candidate, Mitch Novas, boasted about running other judges’ campaigns, contributing to Ron DeSantis’s campaign (“I certainly helped on his campaign”), and explicitly saying. “I thought I had the governor’s ear” the last time sought an appointment. Novas, of course, is a Republican. Manfre is not.
Matthew Cline, another commissioner, asked Manfre about being “arguably one of the more polarizing figures in Flagler County. You’ve been elected to office twice. You’ve been unelected twice. We’re a qualifications committee,” Cline continued, “so we always have concerns when, you know, I’ll give you an example. Is it Steven DeLaRoche, he was a judge, was found to have committed some ethics violations, and he’s been before us several times. We’ve never put him through. Why should we put you through?”
“I disagree that I was a polarizing figure while I was the sheriff,” Manfre said, attributing what perceptions there were of him to politics, with his accomplishments and overall record overshadowed by more attention-grabbing issues. “Politics is part of this. If that’s what you judge it by, then I understand what you’re saying,” he said. “I understand your concern and I’m not minimizing that. But I think as attorneys we’re supposed to balance what occurred, and I think my record of public service outweighs this political attack that I have endured as the sheriff.”
Then came the question of future electoral plans.
“Is your intent to run for this seat if we don’t send you forward to the governor and the governor doesn’t appoint you, is your intention to run for this down the road?”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell you no, and I can’t say yes. It does depend partly on who you choose. I’ll be honest with you, if it’s not me or a Flagler County resident, I’m pretty sure I would run because I think that would really be unfair.”
Manfre spoke of other civil involvement, including his service on a social justice committee at his church–including opposition to capital punishment, the sort of detail that would not endear him to the governor–and his small-business involvements at the chamber of commerce.
It was only 13 minutes into the interview that a question arose about the job of judge itself–the administrative demands, the scope of a county court judge’s docket, and a theoretical question Commissioner Andrew Taylor Morgan, the vice chairman, asked most candidates to test where they fall on the textual spectrum of interpreting laws and ordinances. Manfre in that case showed the nuanced, thought-out approach of his legal thinking–a nuanced approach that, remarkably, he has not replicated in his political and postures.
Manfre went overtime as he closed out his interview with another long speech advocating for a Flagler appointment. “It’s a big deal to Flagler County,” he said. “I know it’s not Volusia or St. Johns or Putnam where this kind of issue has not come up, but residents feel the impact of how the court is so overburdened, and we all love Judge Distler, and she’s active in our community, and we don;t think it’s fair that she’s had to handle” the size of the docket that she has. “I’m just bringing it to your attention, don’t mean to say that it’s untoward of whatever decision you make or the governor makes.”