Don Appignani is one of seven candidates for Flagler County Judge in the Aug. 14 primary election.
The county judge election is a non-partisan race: all registered voters in Flagler County are eligible to cast a ballot in this case–whether Democratic, Republican, Independent or from a minor party. You may cast a vote regardless of the district, the town or the subdivision you live in. If one of the seven candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate will be the winner, and will replace County Judge Sharon Atack, who is resigning at year’s end.
If none of the candidates wins with 50 percent or more of the vote, then the top two vote-getters will head to a run-off in the Nov. 6 general election.
FlaglerLive submitted 14 identical questions to the seven candidates, who replied in writing, with the understanding that some follow-up questions may be asked, and that all exchanges would be on the record. Follow-up questions, when necessary, appear in italics, and may be awaiting answers.
A style note: some lawyers are in the habit of capitalizing quite a few words that would not normally be capitalized in journalistic style. The capitalizations and similarly, specifically legal stylistic quirks have been preserved as a reflection of each attorney’s style.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- Law school
- Disciplinary issues
- Fair treatment: pro se defendants
- Determining witness credibility
- Is a cop’s word more trustworthy than a defendant’s?
- Knowledge of civil law
- Technology and docket efficiency
- Religion and interpretation of law
- Legal role model
- For love of law or money?
- Your prejudices
- Your temperament
- Judging your opponents
- Judging yourself
Place and Date of Birth:Feb. 26, 1953, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Current job: Sole Practitioner, Donald Appignani, P.A., Palm Coast.
Years practicing law: 15
Self-Disclosure Statement with the Florida Bar: Did not file one.
1. Where did you go to law school, what was your GPA, and how did you rank in your class?
I went to the University of Miami School of Law in the Evening Division from August, 1993 through May, 1997. My GPA was 3.086 and I graduated with honors. Due to working a full time job in to support my family, and going to law school in the evening, I never paid attention, nor cared what my class rank was. I attended Rutgers University for undergraduate school and my GPA was 3.83 and graduated with highest honors.
2. Have you ever faced a disciplinary issue at any level before the bar (even if it was dismissed), and if so, what were the outcomes?
Yes I have. I had several bar complaints filed against me over the years. All but one was found to be without merit. In 2002 I entered into a consent decree (an agreement) for a Public Reprimand with the Florida Bar with what I felt at the time was in the best interest of my clients and me. This issue arose in 2001. To this day I truly feel that I did what was in the best interest of my clients and that I did nothing wrong. For more information please see the Flagler Live July 25th article on this issue. My response to the allegations is included at the bottom of that article and lays out the whole in detail.
The Live Interviews:
Flagler School Board
Flagler County Sheriff
3. Many of your defendants in county court will be representing themselves (pro se). What is your strategy for dealing with pro se defendants who will be facing polished attorneys? How will you ensure that they will be treated as fairly, and what allowances will you make for their self-representation, if any?
I am assuming the question relates to civil disputes. On almost every occasion criminal defendants are represented by private counsel or the public defender.
Pro se litigants commonly come to court without a full working knowledge of the law, rules of evidence, or pretrial procedures. I feel a good judge would have the patience, courtroom decorum and experience to explain to pro se litigants what they need to do in order to properly present their case, such as having their evidence and witnesses ready for trial.
By taking a little more time to explain to pro se litigants why certain procedural rules and the rules of evidence have been developed over time, pro se litigants would have a better understanding of the litigation process and feel they had their day in court.
County court judges often deal with non-jury trials and a good judge often relaxes the rules of evidence due to the fact that the judge is trained to be able to weed out what is relevant, what is hearsay and other evidence that might not be admissible during a jury trial.
If feel it is warranted, I would also urge the pro se litigant to find an attorney. If the person is unable to hire an attorney I would point them to the pro bono entities that do this type of representation.
4. As a judge, one of your most important tasks will be to determine the credibility of witnesses. What factors will you rely on to determine credibility? How do you see the difference between a witness in dreadlocks and tattoos as opposed to one in an Armani suit?
One must look at the demeanor, the body language and character of the witness to determine credibility. Also we must look to the consistency of their testimony. Determining the credibility of people in general is a skill that is developed over time. Life experience can greatly enhance this skill.
I would treat ever person that comes before the court, whether a witness, plaintiff or defendant, with the proper respect due from the court. The way the person is dressed, or the way they look, should have no bearing on their testimony.
5. Along the same lines, it is often the experience of defendants in court that between the word of a cop and the word of a suspect, in he-said-she-said cases, the cops’ word will generally prevail. Explain first why you think that is, and explain to what extent, if any, a cops’ word would carry more weight in your court room than a suspect’s.
This statement is not entirely correct. The trier of fact is not supposed to give a police officer any more weight with respect to their testimony than a non police officer, or a defendant. Look at all the jury instructions set forth during trials and will see this instruction in every instance. The fact that a witness is a police officer would never carry any more weight than a non police officer.
The person’s demeanor, body language, character and consistency of their testimony are what should prevail in reference to the person’s testimony.
6. Understanding that judges do not—cannot—possibly read all their cases but rely substantially on lawyers’ arguments, and that you’ll face a considerable number of civil cases, how much civil law do you know? What areas of civil law have you practiced?
I have a wealth of civil litigation experience. I represented clients in areas from small claims (disputes under $5,000.00) to very complicated civil matters in federal courts where the courts are very strict on the civil rules of procedure. I have litigated in federal court against the largest law firm in the world – the U.S. Department of Justice, and have been successful in jury trials in this area.
I have represented high ranking federal law enforcement officers, such as DEA and INS special agents with disputes against their employer in both federal court and administrative forums such as arbitrations and the U.S. Merit System Protection Board. I have also represented hundreds of clients in bankruptcy, and many clients in family law matters, probate, civil rights, landlord/tenant issues and others areas of the law. I have also done federal appeals and have argued in front of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta – one of the 13 or so courts just below the U.S. Supreme Court.
To what extent will you rely on lawyers to guide your interpretation of law in civil matters?
Judges cannot always know all the law. No one can. A good lawyer will research the issue, draft a legal brief or motion, setting out the relevant facts and point the judge to the relevant law. They should also supply the Judge with the case law where they derived their legal argument. It is the Judge’s job to weed out what is actually relevant and on point and make sure the lawyer is correct with respect to their legal argument. Only then can the Judge make an informed decision. A good Judge does not like to be overturned by an appellate court, and therefore needs to be sure the ruling is the correct one.
7. How will you use technology to speed things along, and will you provide online scheduling of hearings that will be easily available to lawyers and public?
I have been using the electronic filing system in federal courts for about ten years now. The state courts are just starting to use a similar system. The electronic filing system is one of the best changes that have come into the legal field in decades, maybe centuries. If is faster, cheaper, and gives both attorneys and the public the ease of access to court files.
The 7th Circuit currently utilizes online scheduling for circuit court hearings. I would like to use this as much as possible in county court. A drawback in count court is the many pro se litigants may not have the knowhow or expertise to schedule hearings online.
8. What role does religion play in your personal life and your interpretation of law, and how do you intend to keep the two separate?
I like to keep my religious beliefs very private. I was raised a catholic, believe in God and try to use the golden rule in every aspect of my life. I strive to treat every person the same way I would like to be treated.
I believe highly in not allowing my religious beliefs to enter into my interpretation of the law. The U.S. Constitution has set forth the separation of church and state. I have sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution, and therefore, my religious beliefs should not be brought into the courtroom.
I also believe very strongly that one’s ideologies, philosophies, prejudices, and personal beliefs have no business in the courtroom. I promise that I would strive to be fair and impartial and treat every case on its own merits and not bring my personal beliefs into the courtroom.
9. Name one currently sitting U.S. Supreme Court judge you have the most affinity for legally and philosophically.
Although I do not always agree with his opinions, and I might not agree with his philosophy, I have a newfound respect for Justice John Roberts. In several of his most recent decisions, he has made his decision on how he sees the rule of law, even though it shows in his writings that he is adverse to the statute or law that he has upheld. He has ruled the way he felt was right even though it may have been unpopular. I feel it is very important for a judge to not bend to political and public pressure and I would strive to do the same.
10. Attorneys, as in so many professions in today’s dismal economy, are hurting for work. Not many can pull in the guaranteed $134,280 a year you’ll be making as a county judge. Understanding that you’re obviously doing this for the good of your community and for the most noble motives possible, you’re also human, you likely have or will have a family, and it’s no secret or sin that some of you are running to land a steady salary. To what extent is that guaranteed income driving your desire to be a county judge?
If I were to have the honor of serving the people of Flagler County as their next County Judge I would be almost 60 years of age when the six year term begins in January. At this stage of my life I am looking more at the health benefits and pension that one would derive from this position as opposed to the salary.
Besides, about ten years ago I taught myself how to do bankruptcies. In the past few years I did okay. I also came into contact with hundreds of local people who took a heavy brunt from the recent economic downturn and in turn have developed somewhat of a compassion for many of these people who have worked hard their whole lives, and through no fault of their own, found themselves in a very precarious and highly stressful situation. Helping people in these types of positions can be very rewarding at times.
11. We all have prejudices at some level. What are yours?
My prejudices come in the form of how people act. If they treat and people fairly and with respect I will treat them the same. My one pet peeve is dealing with people who do not listen when spoken to — also people who do not learn from their mistakes. One of the definitions of insanity is doing things over and over and over again the same way, and expecting different results.
12. Describe, in as much detail as possible and with examples, your temperament, your emotional hot buttons, and the scale of your ego.
I am 59 years of age. Along with my wife we have raised four children and currently help with the raising of one of our four grandchildren. We have had so many ups and downs in our life that it takes a lot to rattle me. Ask anyone that knows me about my demeanor. I have developed the patience, the demeanor, the competence and the experience to this job the right way. I have practiced before hundreds of judges and have seen many very good judges and a few that should never have been a judge. There are a few that I have practiced in front of that have been excellent with respect to their patience and demeanor. I will strive to emulate these types of judge.
13. You’re part of a small community of lawyers who know each other, have likely faced each other in court or seen each other in action while waiting your turn, have been hearing and speaking about each other through the professional grapevine, and, being lawyers, likely have strong opinions about each other. In other words you know more about each other, especially regarding relevant matters in play here, than any member of the press or public could know. Enlighten us: give us, in your words and assessments, a brief synopsis of each of your opponents’ capabilities, strengths and foibles as you understand them, and whether, in your view, each is qualified to be a county judge.
I feel all seven of the candidates are qualified to do a good job if elected to the position of county court judge. They are all good people. To date, I have run a positive campaign and I intend to keep it that way. That is all I am going to say on this matter.
14. Do the same for yourself: Dispensing with such matters as heredity and lengths of stay in Flagler County—which, we hope you agree, are as irrelevant to the law as skin color and culinary tastes—what makes you the best qualified for this position?
I am just a regular guy that happens to be a lawyer and would like to be your next county judge. I have been a motorcyclist since age 17 and am part of the vast local motorcycle community where we constantly hold fundraisers for people in need. I have the most life experience of all the candidates. I have a wealth of legal experience in many different areas, probably more than any other candidate. I have a very good sense of humor and do not let many things bother me. I have the experience, demeanor, competence, patience and compassion to make an excellent judge. I feel that with these qualifications I can best relate to the people that will come before the county court. I would be honored to represent the people of Flagler County as their next county court judge if given the chance.
Don is the dude. Judge Appignani – working man’s judge. Can’t wait to cast my ballot.
Running a good campaign!!!! Very impressive, honest and a candidate for the people. I never knew of this candidate but the more I talk to him, and read about him, the more I like him. I read him to be a candidate for the people , who could be fair.
I am so glad Flagler Live took the time to interview all of the candidates running for Judge. It is such an important position that directly affects the Flagler citizens more than most elected offices. I think it is especially important to give Don a chance to state his views since the first most of the voters have heard of him may have been the article regarding the Elian Gonzalez post of a few days ago. This was obviously sent out to all of the local media as a hit piece from a dirty political operative. I hope your readers are not so naive they don’t spot and detest this dirty trick from the moment it was posted. It shows one thing, that the powers that be must be concerned with his candidacy. This is always a good thing to consider when voting.
I have known Don for a few years now, both personally and professionally. All of the people I have met who know him have seem to have the same opinion as I do. I have found him to be an honorable man and I mean this regarding the standards of a man. Which puts him in the stratosphere as far as comparing him to the standard of a Lawyer.
He was a dockworker and worked to put himself through night school for years until he passed the Bar. This has to give him an insight into the difficulties that normal people have in today’s society, as well as the hard job being performed by all of the law enforcers every day. I think this will make him uniquely qualified to sit on the bench and be fair to all in his court. More so than someone without these experiences.
As I am not acquainted with the other candidates, this is who I am voting for. But even if I knew them all, I’m pretty sure my vote would be the same.
FL informed voter says
Don is a class act. He has been nothing but kind this entire campaign process.
Dee Dee says
I have had the pleasure of knowing Don and his wife Maryann for about a year. They are wonderful people. Don is probably one of the easiest going people I know. I have never witnessed him being disrespectful or rude to anyone. When he stated that he likes to follow the “Golden Rule”, you can believe that 110%. He has worked hard to get where he is today. Raising a family, working full time and attending law school at night would have been too much for a lot of people. I’m sure there are many who have failed to achieve their goals with such a full plate. He is not the kind of guy who will let you down. He is a very fair & honest man. I have seen him acting both in professional and personal situations and I am impressed with both. He always has time for a friend or total stranger in need of some expert advice. The way he handled the attempt to discredit him regarding the Gonzales case from several years ago was admirable. Funny, I haven’t seen that kind of dirty political nonsense from Don. I’m sure whoever threw that out there is very proud of their accomplishment. People talk about Don as just being a regular guy, just “one of us”. I agree with that and would like to add that “we” couldn’t be better represented! I think his life experiences and respect for his fellow man would make him an excellent judge!
Besides, if you look at all of the candidates, who looks more like a judge than Don?!
From the moment I first met Don, about a year ago, I really liked him and trusted him. My initial reactions to him have grown exponentially as I have come to know him better. He is kind, honest, forthright, loyal and committed to his goals. When he told me he was running for judge, I told him he had my vote. As I have come to know even more about him, I’ve become positive that he would make an excellent judge for the people. With his age, life experience and legal experience, he is the one for the job. His abilities to listen, decipher the intricacies of a matter before making a judgement or dispensing advise are unparalleled in my opinion. He has carried heavy responsibilities for himself, family and the public all his life and that has made him a strong, confident, caring, compassionate and fair man. Vote for Don!
rhonda barron says
I would like to say that I saw Mr. Apignani for a consultation last year when my husband was very ill. Not only did he provide me with very helpful advice, he was compassionate and a true gentleman. I believe he would be an outstanding judge and he most certainly has my vote. A regular guy who really has a heart.
Don Appignani says
RESPONSE TO THE NEWS-JOURNAL ARTICLE DATED AUGUST 10, 2012
I feel I need to respond to the News-Journal article published on August 10, 2012, in reference to The Florida Bar reprimanding me in 2002, because the News-Journal article was not entirely accurate. I just want to set the record straight.
First, the article failed to mention that the News-Journal receive an anonymous package several weeks ago in reference to the reprimand, as did several other news media outlets. The anonymous person failed to send my response to the Florida Bar complaint from 2001, which was an 8 page single space letter and contained the whole story about this issue. The other news media outlets covered the story promptly. However, the News-Journal waited until voting was in full swing to publish the article. Why did the News-Journal wait until the 11th hour to publish the article? It appears the News-Journal may have some bias in reference to my candidacy for Flagler County Judge. Maybe it’s because I am not politically connected, nor am I connected to the local legal community. I am a sole practitioner attorney and I am not beholden to any outside influence.
This issue arose due to my representation of an INS Special Agent that was involved in the removal of Elian Gonzalez, a little boy whose mother drowned when they floated to Miami from Cuba, and was unrelated to my representation of David Wallace, the INS Special Agent that filed the bar complaint against me. Elian’s father who remained in Cuba wanted his son returned, and the Miami Gonzalez relatives objected to his return. My representation in reference to the Special Agent that was part of the INS removal team ended up with extensive news media coverage where I was part of no less than 29 news paper articles and ten television news shows. My client became a whistleblower when he revealed, through me, revelations of bigoted and unprofessional, anti-Cuban practices by INS employees during the Elian Gonzalez affair.
At that time Mr. Wallace, was facing disciplinary actions over an e—mail he sent to an INS union official due to perceived safety issues, and asked me to keep his name out of the news media if possible. To this day I still feel I did not do anything wrong. I gave the e-mail Mr. Wallace sent to his union to the Gonzalez family attorneys pursuant to a subpoena. Furthermore, the e-mail was already a public record and if I resisted Mr. Wallace’s would have endured much more news media attention. The fact is he was only involved in one news article published by the Miami Hearld. My actions actually mitigated any damages Mr. Wallace would have suffered.
Also the News-Journal article was misleading with their statement that I plead guilty to the Bar complaint charge. The fact is I entered into a consent agreement where I agreed to have the reprimand issued. At that time I felt it was in the best interest of my clients and me to put the whole situation behind us and move on with our lives. The Florida Bar investigation found that I had not acted “out of any dishonest or selfish motives, and that I had “made full and free disclosure to the grievance committee” I did not have to take an ethics class (as lawyers sometimes do after certain infractions), and have not faced any other disciplinary actions since being admitted to the bar in September 1997, nor have I faced any other such action since the 2001 case.
To this day I feel I handled the situation correctly, except for not contacting Mr. Wallace before giving up the e-mail, and that I did my best to protect his interest. As a sole practitioner, this was a very stressful period in my practice, and all the news media attention took a huge toll on both my personal and professional life. I did not benefit from my actions, except for gaining valuable insight in dealing with the news media, and at no time did I ever deceive any of my INS clients. As I said before, I just want to set the record straight.
Don Appignani – Candidate for Flagler County Judge
I hope that you attain the judgeship – you are the most qualified candidate by far.
My hope is that everyone who votes learns about you.
Don Appignani says
Thanks for the encouragement.
If this entire interview with all of the candidates were required reading before voting,this would be a shut out.Who else in this field is more qualified then Mr Appignani.I’ve already voted via absentee ballot and I feel good about my vote.The winner s or losers of this election will be the voters of Flagler County.Do yourself a favor,do all of us a favor and please vote for Don Appignani.
Thanks for your time.