The nominating commission for the Seventh judicial Circuit will be busy interviewing lawyers for prospective appointments to three circuit judgeships in circuit come January 2024, replacing three judges retiring the previous December: Terence Perkins, Raul Zambrano and James Clayton, all three of whom have served as Chief Judge in the circuit. Clayton is in that position now.
Perkins, senior judge in Flagler, has been on the felony and civil bench here since he replaced circuit Judge Dennis Craig, who was rotated to Volusia County. Perkins pledged at the time to remain in the position until retirement. Zambrano had been the felony judge immediately after the retirement of the late Kim Hammond, for whom the courthouse in Bunnell is named. Zambrano then was shifted to Volusia, but has occasionally sat on hearings in Flagler since. Clayton has never served in Flagler.
Perkins revealed the exact timing of his and his fellow-judges’ retirements during a 10-minute recess last Friday, when an inmate Perkins had sentenced to life in prison two years ago, back for a hearing challenging his sentence, was briefly indisposed and needed a break. Matt Phillips, previously an assistant public defender reappearing in court as a witness in the case, had been filling in the judge on his (Phillips’s) recent retirement and marriage (and the gift of a 2022 Lexus ES 350 Ultra Luxury to his new bride) when Perkins revealed his own ticking clock–literally.
“Yes, 607 days out, I think,” Perkins told Phillips. “Zambrano, Clayton and I are all retiring at the same time. And so Zambrano went out and bought the countdown clock and gave it to each of us, so all three of us have it all synced to the same day. I think it’s 607 days.” Dating from last Friday, that places the retirement date in the waning days of 2023. “We’ve been doing it for a long time,” the judge said. Moments later, the state prison inmate–Michael Cummings, who had killed his wife in a dispute in their Point Pleasant home in Palm Coast in 2018–reentered the courtroom and that hearing continued.
Perkins, who goes by “Terry” to people familiar with him, has always had a flair for understated revelations. He did something similar when he announced his appointment to the bench in Flagler. He was at the Hilton Garden Inn in Palm Coast in March 2018, one of seven judges appearing at a forum as they were all running for election at the time, when Perkins upstaged the event with his news: he’d be starting as Flagler’s felony judge that June. Zambrano, who was chief judge at the time and would still influence Flagler’s judicial fate, had asked him if he was willing to take the assignment. Perkins said he’d do it “in a Minnesota minute.” Perkins had just turned 62 at the time.
The courthouse in Flagler had been in a bit of turmoil, with Zambrano ordering then-Judge Scott DuPont out of the courthouse after DuPont had served as Flagler’s family court judge (the Supreme Court eventually ordered him removed from office for a series of improprieties on the bench and on the campaign trail). Flagler’s felony bench had seen five changes since Hammond’s retirement in 2010, including two stints by Craig, and on the county court side, Distler was perennially overworked and hoping for help. (The Legislature finally heard her, creating the second county judgeship.)
So Perkins, a docket workhorse by nature, had some work to do. His tenure has been as steady–and studied–as his courtroom temperament, returning the courthouse to business without drama, and, aside from the inevitable attention of high-profile cases or covid’s frustrations, making news only of the better kind, as when the Flagler courthouse was first in the state to resume in-person trials during a covid pandemic lull, or when he drew lawyers’ praise for the courthouse’s crisp remote technology, allowing hearing and trial attendance by zoom. That’s continuing even as all proceedings have resumed in person.
“I plan to continue to use Zoom for all proceedings,” he told FlaglerLive in February. “When used appropriately, it’s just more convenient for the attorneys, participants, family members and journalists. Even when proceedings are being conducted in person, I will continue to permit Zoom access using the same meeting ID so that those interested can attend without a special invitation. Of course, not all judges have the same great technology that we have in Flagler and not all judges are as accepting of the technology. So, the use of Zoom may vary from county to county.” It very much has, based on lawyers’ reactions.
The Seventh Judicial Circuit includes Flagler, Volusia, St., Johns and Putnam. All 27 circuit judges may be assigned anywhere in the circuit. Circuit Judge Chris France is the only other permanently posted circuit judge in Flagler, hearing family and civil cases. Flagler also has two of the circuit’s 17 county judges, Melissa Distler and Andrea Totten. Totten was the last local judge to win a seat by appointment when she was recommended by the nominating commission in 2019, and appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. But earlier this month Totten won the seat for a six-year term by election, running unopposed.
Perkins graduated Seabreeze High School, got his law degree from the University of Florida and practiced law for 30 years in the private sector before then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to the bench in 2010. He has never faced opposition in an election. When he ran in 2018, he said “that will probably be my last term.”
And so it is. Chances are, Perkins, Zambrano and Clayton won’t be appearing as a new law firm’s letterhead in 2024.