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Race for the Bench

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Race for the Bench

Is the color of one's skin an issue in the campaigns to elect three county judges in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties?

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

By most accounts Pinellas-Pasco County Judge Sonny Im is an affable, talented man. A pianist and violinist, he is known as a light-hearted prankster active in his community, especially with his children as a youth sports coach. Lawyers say he judiciously manages his court docket. There is no hint of scandal, publicly or rumored, about his work over the past two years as an appointed jurist.

Nevertheless, John Carballo, an assistant Pinellas public defender, wants Im's job. Over the course of nearly 19 years, Carballo has earned a solid reputation defending the indigent. Of eight capital murder cases he's defended, he successfully kept each defendant off death row. Carballo says he has no political agenda against Im. He wants only to offer the voters an alternative. Anything else is nothing more than perception.

But perception may become larger than reality this year with the election opposition to three minority county judges - all Gov. Jeb Bush appointees - in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Hillsborough County Judge Artemeus Elton McNeil and Pasco County Judge Debra Roberts are African-Americans. Im is Korean-American.

It's an issue worthy of debate, says former political strategist Mary Repper, who guided some of the highest profile campaigns in the Tampa Bay area over her 22-year career.

"I think (Im) had to be selected for a reason, and if he's popular and there's been no issues that have arisen in a public kind of setting that make him vulnerable, it leads to the question: Why is he being challenged?" she asks. "I've only had clients run against incumbent sitting judges when I was absolutely convinced of the fact that they needed to be replaced."

That's a question - no matter how unfair it may seem - that could pose a burden to the campaigns of Carballo; Chris A. DeBock, McNeil's opponent; and Joseph B. Sowell, Roberts' challenger. Traditionally, incumbent judges only face opposition if they're considered unfit for the job.

None of the challengers targeted the incumbents because of race, each says. They targeted them because they are interim replacements picked through the political process to fulfill a judicial term. It's about experience, they say.

"It's no more and no less," Carballo says. "It has nothing to do about the individual."

Sowell says, "It's experience."

That's true for DeBock, who said, "Usually people don't go after the incumbents. Most wait for an appointee. In Tampa, nearly every single (judge) being contested is an appointee. The reason for that is those people have never run a campaign, and that's the standard for that particular campaign, not because you're after the person."

Dealing with rumors

It's not just the race issue that muddies the water for the Carballo campaign. Rumors run rife in the 6th Circuit. One rumors claims Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, Carballo's boss, handpicked him as a candidate to gain influence through election over the judiciary. That's something Dillinger calls ludicrous.

"I only hear it as chatter around the (Largo) courthouse," Dillinger acknowledges. "But understand there are always rumors floating around the courthouse."

Those perpetuating the rumors cite a four-year progression of assistant public defenders who have sought to defeat incumbent judges, which was once considered taboo unless issues of malfeasance dogged the incumbent. Four years ago, Kandice Friesen failed in a bid to unseat Pinellas County Judge Karl Grubb. Two years ago, Chris Yeazell challenged longtime Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chuck Cobb and lost. Then there is Carballo's bid this year.

"It's only the conspiratorial minds of judges who think that," says Dillinger, who preferred not to publicly identify those jurists but adds that Im isn't one of them. "It's only a couple of them. I don't think it's all of them."

This is a serious issue for Dillinger, who takes particular care to ensure any of his assistants-turned-candidates don't violate the law. He requires them to sign an agreement that specifies what they legally may or may not do. It prohibits them from using office time or resources for campaign work, for instance.

"There's always been judges who constantly fear an opponent, but the real issue from my point of view is this: If I prohibited someone from running I could get sued," Dillinger says. "I'm not going to get sued if somebody wants to run for judge. I would be violating these people's civil rights."

From Carballo's point of view, his campaign against Im is simple. He cites the electorate's overwhelming mandate in 2000 that ensures the judicial election - not merit retention - of county and circuit judges in Pinellas County and elsewhere in Florida. He says the voters expressed a clear mandate to all incumbents and any potential political candidate. In the end, he says, it's about the free exercise of democracy.

"I'm really doing it for the right reason," says Carballo, who uses that slogan on his Internet Web site ( "I didn't even know what this job paid until I filed (election) papers and someone told me. It's just something I feel strongly about. That's not any criticism of any individual."

Deep-seated beliefs

While Dillinger and his assistant public defender counter the courthouse rumor with reasonable arguments, it may be more difficult for Carballo, DeBock and Sowell to avoid the race issue when meeting potential constituents. It is an issue already debated among members of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.

"We only recently received a phone call, and I don't want to quote the source, but the person, a very credible professional in the legal community, asked us to take a look at the fact that all of the minority judges, with the exception of (Pinellas Circuit Judge) Mike Andrews, have drawn opposition," says St. Petersburg lawyer Darryl E. Rouson, the NAACP branch president. "In fact, it was a call from the white legal community. Their concern was of embarrassment because of some comments this person heard from other members of the white legal community that these judges were vulnerable.

"I cannot speak to a deeper root issue, because I have no factual information that points to such," he adds. "I can talk about what observations and perceptions portend, and I'm very concerned of the difficulty minority judges have had historically getting through the judicial nominating commissions and even greater difficulty in open elections."

What bothers Rouson even more is the timing of this issue. It comes as black lawyers in Florida are making gains in the judiciary through the advocacy of Gov. Jeb Bush's Republican administration. He cites the Bush appointment, in agreement with the now late-Gov. Lawton Chiles, to appoint Tampa lawyer Peggy Quince to the Florida Supreme Court.

"Gov. Bush has done a fantastic job diversifying the judiciary all over the state," he says. "But I'm very concerned about diversity on the bench. African-Americans express to me regularly their disdain when walking into a courtroom and not seeing individuals who look like themselves dispensing justice. This is not to say that we don't have very fine judges sitting.

"But it has everything to do with a segment of the community feeling represented," he adds. "It has everything to do with young black children having role models, which they can aspire to, including the judiciary. We want them to regularly see people who look like them wearing the robes of justice."

Since taking control in Tallahassee, Gov. Bush's administration has appointed minorities to 53 judicial spots, according to the Web site That number includes Miami-Dade lawyer Raoul Cantero, the first Hispanic to serve on the state Supreme Court. It also includes Miami-Dade County Judge Fred Seraphin, the state's first Haitian-American judge.

"Our goal is to have a judicial system composed of judges who reflect the people they serve," Bush states in a letter published under the appointments section of the state-sponsored Web site. "Judges have so much influence over the lives of people of the state, it is important that all Floridians perceive the judiciary legitimate. Having a diverse judiciary serves the goal."

Pinellas-Pasco county judge candidates

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Six candidates seek voter approval on Aug. 31 for three county judge jobs up for election in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

This is the first election for Pinellas County Judge Sonny Im, 47, appointed to office in March 2002, who faces a challenge from John Carballo, an 18-year assistant Pinellas public defender.

First-time candidate Kathleen T. Hessinger, 39, a St. Petersburg attorney, joins Robert "Bo" Kerr Michael, 44, who lost judicial elections in 2000 and 2002, in the race to replace Pinellas County Judge Amy M. Williams, picked by Gov. Jeb Bush to fill the circuit judge post vacated by Charles W. Cope.

Pasco County Judge Debra Roberts, 51, appointed to office in November 2001, also faces opposition in her first election. Her challenger is Joseph B. Sowell, 49, a Dade City resident who serves as a 5th Circuit staff counsel.

In recent interviews, each of the candidates focused on their career experience as the critical element of their campaigns.

Carballo vs. Im

Appointed on his first judicial application, Im acknowledges that his heritage may have played a role in the decision by Gov. Jeb Bush to appoint him to office. He became the first Korean-American judge in Florida, with some saying he may be one of the first of his heritage in the nation. He also suspects he was the state's first Korean-American prosecutor.

"It may have (been a factor) in some people's mind," he says. "I can't tell you yes or no because I don't know what they were thinking."

Im developed a love for the law during his middle school years while studying the Mesopotamian "Codes of Hammurabi," humanity's first written code of laws. That interest took him deeper into the fundamental laws expressed in books of the Old Testament in the Bible.

It was around those middle school years that Im's father encouraged him to work. Im attributes that work ethic as an important life lesson that he carries with him today. He worked through school while earning a bachelor's degree in 1987 at Florida Atlantic University and then a law degree in 1991 at the University of Miami School of Law.

Following law school, he worked as an assistant Pinellas state attorney from 1991-95. Until his appointment, he worked as a private practitioner.

During that time, he gained experienced as a civil traffic infraction hearing officer. He also taught paralegal classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

Since becoming a judge, Im says he has stayed true to his mission as judge of the "people's court." He attributes his work ethic for his ability to adjudicate such a large docket, which on any given day may concern as many as a 100 defendants.

"We get hurried because of the large amount of cases," he says. "That's real difficult to balance at times. For people who don't understand the system, sometimes I ask them to sit down and watch the proceedings for a little bit, and them I bring them up at the end of the docket, which allows more time with this type of individuals. This enables me to get rid of the cases I need to get rid of so then I can spend the time with individuals who need it."

Just as Im, Carballo grew up the Miami area. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1976 from Florida International University and a law degree in 1985 from the Stetson University College of Law.

Even since earning a law degree, Carballo has worked as an assistant 6th Circuit public defender. Most of that time he worked out of the Dade City office. He has handled some of the office's most difficult criminal cases.

Over his nearly 19-year career, Carballo tried eight capital murders cases in which the state sought the death penalty.

He successfully negotiated reductions of sentence in each of them.

One of his most difficult cases was Florida v. Mary Collins, who was charged in the late 1980s with the capital murder of her young son, Joshua. Despite the notoriety of the case, he successfully pleaded her to a prison term of life imprisonment.

He says one of his most satisfying cases was the defense of Henry Thomas, an elderly man accused of killing three residents at an assisted-living facility. With co-counsel William Eble, now a private practitioner, Carballo successfully convinced a jury that an unidentified perpetrator killed the three.

Besides his work as a public defender, Carballo also serves as a training officer. He says that would help him when working with young state attorneys and private practitioners who traditionally work county court cases. He also works as a hearing master for the 6th Circuit's juvenile drug diversion program.

There is no one particular reason why he decided to run for judge, though he wants to continue his role as a public servant. If elected, though, he has a couple goals.

"One is a commitment to follow the rule of law," he says. "I really take that to heart.

"You get a lot of litigants, individuals and small businesses, who lack the wherewithal to hire counsel," he says. "Secondly, if the judgment is adverse to them they may not have the resources to appeal to a higher court. So it's very important to get it right at the trial level."

Carballo also expressed a commitment to open access to the courtrooms. When the law allows, he would ensure his courtroom remains open as much as possible to the public, especially by taking advantage of existing video and audio technology.

Hessinger vs. Michael

Even though this is her first campaign for judicial office, Hessinger applied last year to fill the county judge spot that Mike Andrews vacated for a circuit judge appointment.

Hessinger has aspired to become a judge even before earning a law degree in 1990 from the Stetson law school. She earned a bachelor's degree in 1987 from Florida Southern College.

Following law school, she worked for three years as an assistant Pinellas state attorney. Then she went into private practice, first working for the law office of William F. Merlin and then at Harris Barrett Mann & Dew LLP. In 1999, she joined the members of Harris Barrett who spun off to form Deacon & Moulds PA. The new law firm made her a shareholder two years ago.

Over those years, Hessinger worked as a non-salaried coach of Stetson's mock trial team. She then spent three years from 1995-98 as an adjunct professor in the area of trial advocacy. That's a point she expects to impress upon the voters. Just as Carballo, she thinks her experience with young law students has prepared her for the young state attorneys and lawyers she could see in court.

At Deacon & Moulds, Hessinger focuses mostly on medical malpractice defense. She thinks her trial work has built a foundation that makes her a capable candidate for the job.

"I have a strong trial background," she says. "I know what a good judge needs to have, a good judicial temperament, being decisive. I'm a person who makes a decision and moves on, and I think judges need to be able to do that. Those are the two main points - temperament and decisiveness."

Although this is Michael's third campaign, he speaks optimistically about his chances this time around.

"I've come very close in my two campaigns, but they were tough campaigns in that I ran against an incumbent the first election, who had been on the ballot, and ran against someone in the second election who was a former public official. But I was excited that I earned (about) 130,000 votes between the two elections."

In 2000, Pinellas County Judge Myra Scott McNary earned 51.55% of the vote to his 48.45%. Two years ago, Jack St. Arnold, a former Dunedin city commissioner, earned 53.9% of the vote to Michael's 46.1% in race for circuit judge.

A lifelong Pinellas resident, Michael earned a bachelor's degree in 1982 from Stetson University and a law degree in 1985 from the University of South Carolina College of Law. He also is the son of retired 6th Circuit Judge Robert F. Michael.

Over the years, he has mostly worked at small law firms. During the 1980s, he spent two years as an assistant Hillsborough public defender. From 1991-2003, he was a partner in the St. Petersburg law firm of Paul Hitchens PA. Last year, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist hired him to work out of the agency's new St. Petersburg office, which handles child support issues for a five-county region.

"I think I'm going to be a good public servant as a county judge," he says. "A county judge probably has more contact with his constituency than any other public servant. I think I bring a people-oriented perspective to the local court. Demeanor is so critical as a county judge because many of the litigants do not have lawyers and need an explanation of what is happening when they are in court. I think I'm very much a people person and have the patience required to be a county judge."

Sowell vs. Roberts

In his bid to unseat Roberts, Sowell intends to campaign on his experience. But Roberts already has a response to that.

"The one thing my opponent doesn't have is two and one-half years experience as a judge," she says.

And she speaks proudly about the experience that she accumulated since earning a bachelor's degree in 1975 from the University of Central Florida, a master's degree in 1978 from Florida State University and a law degree in 1985 from the FSU College of Law.

Prior to law school, she worked as a mental health therapist at a private center in Altamonte Springs and then for the U.S. Public Health Service. Following law school, she worked from 1985-91 as an assistant general counsel at the predecessor to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. There she participated in administrative hearings and handled appeals.

For about three years, Roberts worked as a senior staff attorney at the Florida Supreme Court. At the time of her appointment, she worked as 6th Circuit court counsel. She spent about seven years in that job. During that period, she gained quasi-judicial experience as a general master and as a child support enforcement hearing officer.

"My work at the Supreme Court is where I was first exposed to judges and the work they do," she says. "I assisted them, provided advice and worked with the judicial education program. I got really interested in that because we have a judicial education program that is one of the best in the country. It really got me interested in doing this type of work."

In explaining her appointment, she says, "I thought I was part of a group of very qualified people. I think they chose me, perhaps, because of my quasi-judicial experience, my experience in judicial education, in addition to my trial work."

Just as Roberts, Sowell gained practical experience outside of law prior to earning a law degree in 1987 from the Stetson law school. He earned a bachelor's degree from Florida International University and a master's degree in 1978 from the University of Miami.

Originally focused on a career as a medical librarian, Sowell became head of public services and associate director of the Miami-Dade County Law Library following law school. Then he went into private practice with his wife, Cecelia Redman.

In 1994, Sowell abandoned private practice for a job with what is now the state Department of Children & Families. He gained litigation experience in the area of child welfare, abuse, dependency litigation, abuse and termination of parental rights. After spending nearly every day in court over a four-year period, he took a job as DCF operations program administrator in Sumter County. In that job, he supervised the delivery of all economic services, the child welfare staff, protective investigators, in addition to his work as an attorney.

In 1998, he took a job as a 5th Circuit state attorney, prosecuting all levels of crimes. Two years ago, he became the 5th Circuit appellate division staff attorney. It was during this time that people around him suggested he try for a judicial job.

"I believe that it is important that individuals who have had a great deal of practical experience in law to share that experience to serve the public," he says. "I believe my broad practical experience in the law, and in legal practice, makes me well suited to serve as Pasco County judge."


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