Recommendations for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit and Palm Beach Judicial Bench

Richard Junnier, Esq.

Richard Junnier, Esq.

First, there are no poor candidates in this election field.

There are no kooks, crooks, clearly-unqualifieds, or those suspected of corruption. Each candidate evidences excellence, appears sincere, and has demonstrated varying levels of community commitment.

My recommendations lean toward candidates with a high volume of court experience, previous judicial experience (meaning incumbency), and whose public service has demonstrated a compassionate heart, attention to detail, and who evidence the capacity to transcend prejudice and heuristic through treating people and cases as unique and individual. I believe that these attributes optimally maximize the potential for consistent, albeit always imperfect, fairness.

When determining the varying levels of these qualities in each candidate I reviewed news reports, both traditional and social, solicited colleagues’ anecdotes, and, when available, reviewed the candidate’s websites.

One factor I refuse to consider is the political affiliation of any candidate.

Campaigning in Leon County during 2012 early voting

Campaigning in Leon County during 2012 early voting

I also chose not to review their success at fundraising, and, unless all other factors were equal, I ignored consideration as to ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. If all other factors were equal, I sided with choices that empower representatives of historically disenfranchised communities–this is intended to further the public interest of having a judiciary as diverse as the society it judges.

These are my recommendations followed by a brief analysis of why I recommend them:

15th Circuit Judges

Group 14: Diana Lewis*

Group 30: Maxine Cheesman

Palm Beach County Judges

There are no contested elections for Palm Beach County Judge.

*Denotes that the recommended candidate is also the incumbent.

Analysis of 15th Circuit Judicial Candidates:

Group 14: Diana Lewis* 

“Nothing in this Estate will be contested. This Estate would have been opened as a routine matter on this Court’s ex parte calendar but for their same-sex marriage. There is no rational basis to apply those laws to the facts of this case. Same-sex couples are entitled to respect, dignity, and protection as any other spouse. . .”         –The Hon. Diana Lewis

Diana Lewis is the judge that ruled–as it applies to probate law–Florida must recognize out-of-state same sex marriages.*

*Specifically: Florida probate law requires that the personal representative for a decedent either be a Florida resident, a family member of the decedent, or a spouse of the decedent. Florida law prohibits recognition of out-of-state same sex marriages for “any purpose.” In this case, the person applying to be personal representative for his deceased out-of-state same sex spouse was a non-resident. Judge Lewis ruled that the “any purpose” portion of Florida law is inapplicable in this situation.

You can read her ruling, and get an idea of her nuanced writing ability, here. 

Judge Lewis has served on the 11th Circuit bench since 2003–the same year her opponent graduated from law school. Prior to that, she spent twenty years as a powerhouse attorney working with firms that are synonymous with hyper-competence. The law is not her first career, she used to be an admissions counselor for Notre Dame. She volunteers regularly with religious and secular charities and serves on the Board of Trustees for her alma mater. She also serves on multiple bar committees related to the practice and policing of attorney ethics and professionalism.

(The potential irony of this is discussed at length further below.)

Her challenger is Jessica Ticktin. Although young, she has a splendid legal resume. Mrs. Ticktin has practiced law for ten years, mostly with her father’s firm, the Ticktin Law Group (you have seen their commercials) and for four years, as managing partner. She says that she oversees 24 attorneys, 4,500 cases, and 10 offices. While the firm seems to advertise its abilities in any legal situation, she concentrates in the area of family law.

I tried to find a list of civic accomplishments, examples of volunteerism, or public recognitions. Neither her law firm nor campaign websites list anything significant.

Because Judge Lewis has twenty more years legal experience, and because she actively shows her community commitment through volunteer activities and charitable work, I recommend that she be retained.

I do this with some reluctance because Judge Lewis might be a bit of a bully.

Mrs. Ticktin has advanced an aggressively negative campaign. Citing a poll of those who practice in Palm Beach, Mrs. Ticktin claims Judge Lewis has a poor judicial temperament and a bias toward defendants in civil litigation. Mrs. Ticktin also claims Judge Lewis’ decisions have the highest rate of being overturned on appeal.

Facially, that is pretty scary, so I will analyze each of those claims.

The Palm Beach practitioners’ poll is unreliable because of its dismal response rate–10.33%. Because it is unreliable, it evidences nothing. Its use in a campaign is therefore misleading. According to the Palm Beach Post, this was explained to Mrs. Ticktin by the Judicial Practices Commission of the Florida Bar Association. Despite being admonished not to do it, Mrs. Ticktin has continued to use the poll.

You can read the full article here.

However, some attorneys have said that she yells and degrades them. The anonymous online comments are truly jaw-dropping. If you’re feeling prurient, or just want to be reminded how unkind we can be toward one another, you can look at some of them here.

Others explain that she is simply impatient with lawyers who are unprepared. Her bias is not evidenced toward defendants, but merely favors attorneys who exhibit competence. Apparently, unlike some judges, she reads every scrap of paper an attorney files prior to a hearing and gets really annoyed with those appearing before her if they have not. She takes her job very seriously.

My friends (admittedly a  very small sample) who appear before her describe her as “nice” and “extremely detailed.”

She appears to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the law, but when her decisions are appealed, quizzically, more than 40% have been overturned. That sounds high and it probably is.

However, at the relevant time, she primarily presided over foreclosure cases, and if she enters a default judgment because the homeowner is too depressed to even show up to court, there is probably going to be an appellate reversal. She does not realistically have control over that.

Beyond my hypothetical example, I researched the significance of a 40% reversal rate in civil law cases.

In a regretful effort to be thorough, I examined several academic statistical analyses of appellate reversal rates in the state courts of large counties. The one I thought to be the most relevant (though still not great) is a 2006 “Special Report” of the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. According to the DOJ, 15% of civil trials conclude with an appeal by the losing party, of which 43% are withdrawn or dismissed prior to appellate resolution. Of those remaining appeals, approximately 33% of trial judgments are reversed in whole or in part. Focusing specifically on real property trials (which include but are not limited to foreclosure hearings), the appeal rate increases from 15% to 24%. I would tell you what of that 24% gets reversed on appeal, but the study then divides property claims into tort and contract categories making that not feasible.

The report is here.

I tried to find a specific study pertaining to appellate foreclosure reversal rates in Florida, but did not find one. However, the website for Florida Foreclosure Attorneys, PLLC details a helpful long list of foreclosure reversals.

In other words–while high, a 40% reversal rate seems to be within the bounds of normalcy for foreclosure dockets.

Because Mrs. Ticktin’s accusations are based upon an unreliable poll, anonymous internet anecdotes, and are counterbalanced by other attorneys’ anecdotes, I instead compare Judge Lewis’ more than three-decade legal career with Mrs. Ticktin’s briefer one. I also compare Judge Lewis’ active volunteerism to Mrs. Ticktin’s apparent lack of one.

With some reservation, I recommend Judge Lewis be retained.

Group 30: Maxine Cheesman

Because of her thirty-year legal career and copious pro-bono work, I was going to recommend Peggy Rowe-Linn. Despite a lack of trial experience (none of the candidates have preformed a significant amount of Florida trial work) she would surely make an excellent judge.

Similarly, Ivy-League educated Jaimie Goodman, though the bulk of his trial experience is out-of-state, seems to have an excellent temperament, and despite specializing in employment law, has a commanding general legal knowledge. This is his third campaign for judge.

But as I wrote about Mrs. Rowe-Linn’s prodigious legal career, one thought kept attacking my mind.

“I really want to recommend Maxine Cheesman.”

First, while almost every lawyer majors in political science or philosophy, (I opted for psychology with a minor in literature thereby guaranteeing my need to go to law school if I wanted a job) as an undergraduate, Ms. Cheesman received a Bachelor and Master’s degree in Chemistry. The suggestion of a mind capable of calculus and empiricism serving as a judge is downright thrilling.

A judiciary incapable of subjecting evidence to the scientific method is why I occasionally find myself working postconviction cases involving the improper admittance of clairvoyant testimony as signaled by a psychic dog. (I really do have to write about that case someday soon!)

Second, although the span of her legal career is less than half that of Mrs. Rowe-Lynn, she has practiced law for ten years. And for that ten years she has concentrated on advancing the cause of the defenseless and the oppressed. She won the Palm Beach Bar Association’s 2012 “And Justice for All” Award for providing high quality pro-bono work to the Palm Beach community. It is no surprise that the law is Ms. Cheesman’s second career. Prior to launching her civil litigation firm in 2005, she spent 27 years in the public sector, including 15 years as a division head at the South Florida Water Management District.

Third, she consistently answers questions in the most fantastically awesome way. When asked what is the most important quality in selecting a judge, most will answer “a knowledge of the law.” When asked, Ms. Cheesman offered what I believe to be the almost never mentioned, but correct, answer–“patience.”

(That is from an interview with West Boca News.) 

I believe that Ms. Cheesman’s ten years of legal experience, supplemented with her rare and needed background in science, a 27 year public service career, and eloquent understanding of judicial temperament amid chaotic caseloads, make her at least as qualified as Mrs. Rowe-Linn.

All other things therefore being equal, Maxine Cheesman is a native of Jamaica. As the Afro-Caribbean community continues to grow in south Florida, it is time that a highly accomplished representative from that community be elevated to the Bench of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit.

This is intended to further the public interest of having a judiciary as diverse as the society it judges.

Or as it powerfully states on Ms. Cheesman’s campaign website: “You have the power to chose who judges you.”

I recommend Maxine Cheesman.

What are your recommendations? Please share in the comments section below.

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A Brief Note about the Florida Democratic Party’s Primary for Attorney General:

If you are undecided in the Florida Democratic Party’s Primary for Attorney General, please consider voting for George Sheldon.

I don’t have a single negative comment about his opponent, but George’s experience is transcendent. His problem solving skills and ability to create consensus have been repeatedly demonstrated during his service in senior posts at the state and national level, working under both Republicans and Democrats. He has dedicated his entire public service career to advancing the cause of human rights (by breaking up human trafficking rings), protecting the defenseless (particularly abused children), and uplifting the oppressed (by reducing the error-rates in welfare and food stamp distribution).

He spent a career working for previous attorney generals, ultimately becoming chief deputy (for central Florida) to beloved Bob Butterworth. When the Department of Children and Families was in shambles–then Governor Charlie Crist tasked him with fixing it. He has also served as a senior official in the Obama administration. Prior to serving in the executive branch, George spent 8 years in the Florida House of Representatives.

You can learn more about this extraordinary human being here.

You can compare George’s record with his, also qualified, opponent’s here. 

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