A county and circuit judicial candidates forum afforded residents of Broward County the opportunity to ask questions of people running for seats in the 17th Circuit.
The Tuesday, July 27 event, hosted by the Urban League of Broward County, took place at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center near Fort Lauderdale.
Miami Herald columnist Joy-Ann Reid, who also serves as the editor of the political blog The Reid Report, was the moderator.
Launched by the Urban League in 2008, the forum, nicknamed Broward Votes!, is a non-partisan initiative that features a series of political forums focusing on electoral seats that encompass the central Broward region.
Andrea Owes, the Urban League’s director of special events, explained that the judicial candidates “cannot debate the way other election seats can, so this is an opportunity for the community to know who they are, learn about his or her background and ask questions.”
Of the 42 contested seats, 20 are for county court, and 22 are for circuit court. Five of the candidates are black, three of whom are incumbents.
The incumbent candidates are Circuit Court Judges Elijah H. Williams and Kenneth L. Gillespie; and County Court Judge Mary Rudd Robinson. Other candidates are attorneys Roshawn Banks and F. Jahra McLawrence.
“This is more than we have ever had before,” County Court Judge Mary Rudd Robinson said about the number of black judges on the ballot. “The law schools are producing more attorneys, great attorneys, who are willing to run,” the incumbent candidate said.
Broward County has a total of 90 judges.
Circuit courts have exclusive original jurisdiction in actions including all cases relating to juveniles except traffic offenses, determination of incapacity, guardianship and actions in which the matter in controversy exceeds $15,000.
County courts have original jurisdiction in all criminal misdemeanor cases where there is not a concurrent felony, traffic violations and in all violations of municipal and county ordinances. County court judges also serve as committing magistrates.
During the forum, each panel of candidates was asked one question by Reid and given two minutes to provide a response.
When asked if dissatisfaction among attorneys general regarding the current judges’ performance prompted this election’s record number of challenged seats, Circuit Court Judge Matthew Isaac Destry said he “runs only on his record.”
Destry noted that Broward County has “three times the number of challenged seats as in the state circuit” and stated “I cannot say that dissatisfaction is a reason.”
When asked whether the current economic times have contributed to an increase in the number of domestic-violence cases, Circuit Court Judge Barbara Ann McCarthy replied “yes.” The best thing to do, McCarthy said, is to “get more services so if there is a child involved, we can get him or her back in the home.”
Responding to a question regarding people who “fear the system,” attorney Jill Tamkin Rafilovich agreed that “many who come to my office are afraid.”
Rafilovich, who is seeking a circuit court seat, added, “because many are immigrants, it’s important that they feel the judge is approachable.”
Mary Bess, a Lauderhill resident who attended the forum, said she would like to see more blacks in the judge seats.
“When I look at the disproportionate numbers of blacks, especially kids, who end up going through the court system, and then there are only five judges overseeing their cases, I become concerned about equal representation and fairness in how the case may be handled.”
Reid said the judge seats are “one of the things on the ballot that gets overlooked, particularly
in the African-American community, and we can change that. It’s one of the most important things to look at and decide on,” she said.
PHOTO: Andrea Owes