Gov. Ron DeSantis today appointed Andrea Totten, a 40-year-old Palm Coast resident and an assistant attorney general, Flagler County judge, filling a seat newly created by the Legislature to relieve the overburdened docket of County Judge Melissa Distler.
Totten was one of six finalists out of 24 applicants who interviewed with the Seventh Judicial Circuit’s Judicial Nominating Commission in late August. All six finalists were based in Flagler, and had included Alexander Alvarez, Craig Atack, Kip Miller, Scott Spradley and Alicia Washington. Five of the six, including Totten, are Republicans.
“I want to be a judge because I love public service and I love working in the court system,” she told the nominating commission in August. “I’ve now been privileged to work as a prosecutor, being ion and out of the county and circuit courts on a daily basis, as an appellate attorney, viewing the issues facing the trial courts from kind of a bird’s eye view, and as a judicial law clerk, serving some of our best local judges. But in terms of public service, I see serving as a judge as the pinnacle, and there’s no higher honor.”
Her most high-profile case was handling the appeal, for the prosecution, of Matthew Apperson, the man who’d been accused of attempting to murder George Zimmerman in 2015. Zimmerman in 2012 had been acquitted of all charges after he killed Trayvon Martin in what was controversially judged to have been an act of self-defense. A jury found Apperson guilty. An appeals court upheld the verdict.
“I handled all aspects of the appeal on behalf of the State, including briefing and oral argument,” Totten wrote in her application, “after which Apperson’s conviction was affirmed. In addition to this case’s importance as one of great public interest, it was signifcant to me personally because it signaled my Bureau Chief’s confidence in both my legal skills and my ability to perform under
the pressure of media attention.”
Unlike some of the candidates who interviewed, Totten telegraphed her temperament at her judicial nominating commission from the moment she walked in the room: she was all smiles but assertively business-like as she shook hands with the nine members of the commission. She then launched into her summary presentation about who she was almost as soon as she sat down, dispensing with small talk and focusing on her professional path without making a secret of her ambitions. Her laser focus was implicit in her delivery–her slight voice masking a more certain resolve.
“Part of the reason of course that I’m interested in this particular position,” she continued in her opening statement, “is because Flagler County is my home. I’ve lived here 15 years. In fact it’s a four-minute drive from my driveway to this courthouse. My kids are in school here, my parents are here, my friends, my network, is all here, so it would really be awesome to be able to do what I love right here in my own community.” (See the full interview below.)
The Legislature created the new county court position earlier this year after several years of pressure from local officials to do so, as the case load has continued to grow. Totten’s appointment was relatively swift, coming just six weeks after the nominating commission forwarded its recommendations to DeSantis. She will not have to run to defend her appointment until the 2022 election, a spokesperson for the Seventh Judicial Circuit said.
County court handles misdemeanors, civil cases and actions involving amounts below $15,000 (though that’s about to change to greater amounts), small claims, and so on.
“I think that’s great news,” County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien said of the appointment. “The feedback that I got was that she was supported throughout the legal community, and quite frankly any one of the three finalists from Flagler that I knew would have been great choices.” O’Brien had met with three of the six candidates–the three he knew, who also included Alvarez and Washington–and decided not to write a letter of support for any single one of them, since any of the three would be good choices in his view.
Washington had been seen as among the favorites: one of the judicial nominating commission members even told her that this was “your time,” considering the number of times nominating commissions had forwarded her name to governors.
“A few of the finalists requested meetings with me and I met with all that requested it,” Sheriff Rick Staly said. “I was very impressed with all of them. I did feel that Andrea Totten would make a great jurist based on her experience. I thought it was very sound, she seemed very competent, so I look forward to our team working with her, assigning a bailiff to her and working with her. I think the governor made a good pick.”
The sheriff had requested three additional deputies in this year’s budget, which the county commission approved, one of whom would be the assigned bailiff to the new county judge.
“I found her to be very thoughtful in her responses as to why she chose to go through the appointment process and I found her passion for the law and humility of her experiences in life to be authentic,” Mayor Milissa Holland, who had also met with Totten, said. “She loves this community, has a young family and is invested here. I felt that her background, temperament, professionalism and open mindedness to be great qualities in serving as our newest judge and a nice compliment to our circuit.”
It’s not yet clear when Totten would begin on the bench. “She needs to work out when she would leave her current job and when she would come on board,” Ludmilla Lelis, the communications officer for the Seventh Judicial Circuit, said this afternoon. Her investiture will depend on that, though she does not need to wait before she attends the Florida Judicial College–where all new judges get their training–to start. The college meets twice a year, and those sessions don’t necessarily coincide with new appointments to the bench. She is expected to attend the college in January.
“She can shadow and visit and sit in, so at least she’ll get training there,” Lelis said.
A native of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Totten went to high school in Port Perry, Ontario, for three years, then Slippery Rock, Penn., for a year, from where she graduated. She got her B.A. from Slippery Rock University and her law degree from the University of Toledo College of Law, in 2004, ranking 37th in a class of 97, according to her application for judge.
Totten started her career as an intern at the Toledo public defender’s office in 2004, then worked a year as an assistant state attorney in Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit, in Sanford, before taking a similar job in 2006 in Daytona Beach, in the circuit that includes Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam counties. She was a judicial law clerk in the circuit from 2011 to 2013, then took the job she’s held since as an assistant attorney general, in criminal appeals, where she’s handled handle “constitutional questions, statutory construction, the admissibility of evidence, jury selection, and sentencing,” according to her application. She’s tried 20 jury trials and 20 non-jury trials, appearing in court just once a month, on average, over the past five years.
She is married, has two young children, has been involved as a mentor through the Flagler County Education Foundation, and was previously involved with the with the Noah’s Light Foundation, which funds research in brain cancer treatment. “I enjoy spending time with family, going to the beach, camping, exploring state parks, and playing tennis,” she wrote. “I am also actively involved in my church.” But on her application, she censored what church she attended, among other personal revelations.
Andrea Totten’s Aug. 28 Interview With the Judicial Nominating Commission (from Volusia Exposed):