Scott Wilson, Leon Jackson, Jody Phillips and Jimmy Midyette are the candidates for Duval County Clerk of Court.
| Florida Times-Union
One of Duval County’s newest judges, 18 months after appointment, faces a challenger in the form of an attorney with perhaps more recommendations to become a judge than any other in county history.
Rhonda Peoples Waters, who has been selected thirteen times by commissions as a finalist for judicial nominations only to be spurned by governors, is challenging Duval County Judge Erin Perry, a former prosecutor selected by Gov. Rick Scott in January of 2019 as a county judge.
The two will face off on the Aug. 18 primary ballot. Anyone, regardless of party, can vote in the nonpartisan election. Early voting began Monday.
County judges handle misdemeanors, small-claims lawsuits and evictions. These judges also decide whether or not to release defendants awaiting trial. County judges rotate between civil and criminal cases each week.
The last time a sitting judge was taken down in an election was in 2012 after Circuit Judge John Merrett pulled out a gun in court and attorney Suzanne Bass defeated him at the polls.
Neither Perry nor Peoples Waters has attracted controversy.
Perry said she believes as a judge she has successfully set a tone in court that allows everyone to feel they have a fair shot.
“I’m a better judge than I was 18 months ago, and I will be a better judge 18 months from now than I am now,” Perry said.
Peoples Waters, however, said it’s important that a judge has more experience than just prosecuting. Peoples Waters has served as a public defender and a private attorney handling civil, family and criminal cases. If elected, she’d be the first black woman elected as a judge in Duval County; two other black women have been appointed as judges by governors.
“I believe that diversity of thought, diversity of practice, the fact that I have managed and owned my own small firm for over 12 years has prepared me for the proper management in the courtroom,” she said.
Peoples Waters’ evaluations from eight years at the Office of the Public Defender were unanimously positive.
The State Attorney’s Office never provided Perry’s personnel file, despite a records request filed more than a week ago.
“What sets me apart in a lot of ways is temperament, demeanor, professionalism and integrity,” Perry said in an interview. She said her background as the first in her family to graduate college allows her to better understand the necessity to have an “atmosphere of mutual respect.”
Unlike other prosecutors who have filed for nominations, Perry’s application emphasized mercy as part of seeking justice. The application asks prosecutors to list their six most significant cases. Most list legally complex cases. Prosecutors often list death-penalty cases and similarly punitive examples. While Perry listed examples of complex cases, she led off her list with an example of a robbery case she dropped because of an uncooperative witness. Later, she got to know the defendant who she said lives a productive life.
That case, she wrote, “taught me the long-reaching effects of every action I take. It taught me that even though I may not be paying attention to every detail of the person standing across the courtroom from me, their liberty is at least somewhat in my hands, and they likely will remember me.”
Thirteen times, judicial nominating commissions, or JNCs, have sent Peoples Waters as a finalist to become a judge. Every time, Gov. Scott or Gov. Ron DeSantis have chosen someone else. No one else in Duval County has been sent as many times in the last decade.
Peoples Waters initially filed to run for then-Circuit Judge Gregg McCaulie’s seat, but that election was canceled after McCaulie retired early. She then applied to be nominated for the seat and was a finalist, but DeSantis chose Gil Feltel, a former prosecutor and the lawyer for the Jacksonville Port Authority, instead. Ironically, Feltel had served on past nominating commissions that recommended Peoples Waters.
During her interview for McCaulie’s seat, she said she almost felt like giving up on trying to get appointed. “I had already decided I was going to have to run” for election.
Judicial nominating commissions were established in 1971, following the abolition of partisan judicial elections, to ensure that merit, not politics, drove governors’ appointments. Circuit and county judges, unlike appellate judges, still faced elections every six years, but those elections became nonpartisan affairs.
Inherently, it’s hard for voters who don’t interact with a legal system to weigh what’s important in a judicial election. It’s made even harder because judges and judicial candidates face rules about what they can and cannot say under the Florida Supreme Court judicial canons.
Candidates can’t solicit endorsements or personally fundraise, having to farm that work out to a committee. They can’t suggest they support or oppose a political party. They also can’t make any promises about how they’d handle issues likely to come up in court if the promises are “inconsistent with the impartial performance” of a judge.
In the spring, the son of a wealthy tobacco attorney, who had briefly been Peoples Waters’ opponent in the race to succeed McCaullie, filed at the last minute to run for another judicial race. At the same time, the incumbent judge withdrew his candidacy allowing that attorney, Michael Kalil, to take office without an election.
Peoples Waters said she would’ve rather run for an open seat than challenge a sitting judge, but “I had to make a decision after those two specific incidences. How important was it for the people of Duval to get to decide who was the most qualified? Who would better represent them and follow the law?”
Duval judges have attracted more attention in recent months, with the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing officers with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, threatening to “expose” judges the union opposes, starting with one county judge who set what the union said was a too-low bond on someone accused of driving into a police car.
Later, after protests against police abuse, peaceful protesters who had been arrested saw a county judge double or triple their bonds without explanation.
Both Perry and Peoples Waters said they would resist political pressures.