Hillsborough County is finally getting six new judges in its understaffed county judicial division, which has been bogged down for years with massive cases and insufficient judges.
But the first batch of four new judges appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis – three of the six new positions plus one replacement – will not improve what some legal system insiders say will not improve the county’s black judge shortage.
DeSantis typically uses the Federalist Society, a conservative legal advocacy group that advocates constitutional “textualism” and opposes what it regards as liberal judicial activism, when appointing judges.
All four of DeSantis’s new Hillsborough officers are members of the Federalist Society.
But with their addition, the county will stay at less than 8 percent, five out of 65. New appointees include a white man, a white woman, a Hispanic, and an Asia-Pacific islander.
Hillsborough County is 18 percent black, according to the census.
Since DeSantis took office, the 13th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, which nominates candidates for Hillsborough judicial offices, has recommended at least three black candidates, some more than once, for vacancies. So far, DeSantis has named one of them.
The state’s Supreme Court, which certifies the need for new judges, has been saying Hillsborough needs more district judges for years.
The last new positions Hillsborough got were in 2006, said Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta. “Of course we have grown a lot since then.”
Hillsborough Chief Justice Ron Ficarrotta.
He said the number of cases for the county’s civil court judges had grown to “dozens of cases” at a time, before a large number of evictions due to the pandemic were expected.
While district judges handle serious crimes and lawsuits, the district’s civil courts are “people’s courts,” where individuals file small claims lawsuits who often represent themselves, such as landlord-tenant disputes and windshield damage, Ficarrotta said.
For prospective judges, district judgeships are the first step on the ladder to appointments or elections to higher courts.
Prior to the new positions, Hillsborough had 17 district judges and 45 district judges.
The Supreme Court has approved four new county courts for Hillsborough for several years, and two more have been added this year.
But lawmakers didn’t fund new jobs until last year, and the two it funded were then turned down by DeSantis over pandemic budget concerns.
State Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, an attorney and member of the judicial nomination committee, said he has been fighting for the new judge posts since his election in 2018 and is excited to get all six. He hopes that the remaining new positions will be filled by the end of the year.
“It took me a year and a half, but I did it,” he says.
State Representative Mike Beltran, R-Lithia.
Beltran denies Hillsborough Bank lacks diversity, citing figures from women and Hispanics. According to Ficarrotta, more than half of the 65 judges are women.
But Beltran said he looks for the best candidates, not demographic diversity, when selecting nominees.
“We (elect nominees) really don’t care about race,” he said. “We’re looking for the best people we can find. There are no affirmative measures. “
Ficarrotta said he values diversity at the bank – “It is important that our bank reflects our community and county” – but had no comment on whether Hillsborough meets that standard.
DeSantis’ shortage of black judges has long been a problem, said Sean Shaw of Tampa, a former Democratic candidate for attorney general.
“It was so obvious in the Rick Scott era, but even more so under DeSantis,” Shaw said. “No black person on the state Supreme Court, very few at the level of appeal – at no level is African-American representation appropriate.”
Sean Shaw, a former Democratic nominee for Florida Attorney General.
In response to email questions, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw replied, “Judges are not appointed to ‘represent’ certain identity groups … Governor DeSantis believes in selecting the best candidate for the job, regardless of skin color or other immutable trait. In future judges’ appointments, the governor will, as always, consider all qualified candidates who are committed to upholding the rule of law. “
The new Hillsborough judges are:
- Michael Hay or Founder, Riedel, Blain & Postler, PA
- Jeffrey Rich, a criminal defense attorney with his own practice.
- Leslie Schultz-Kin, assistant attorney general and head of the civil litigation office at the attorney general’s office in Tampa.
- Joseph Tompkins, U.S. Assistant Attorney for Florida’s Middle District.
Contact William March at firstname.lastname@example.org.