By David Lyons, FloridaBulldog.org
A three-way race is looming among prominent circuit judges to become the next chief judge of Broward County, a largely ceremonial post that has been used as a bully pulpit for better court services and a venue for third-rail policy disputes.
Veteran Circuit Judge Peter Weinstein, who has served six years as chief, is not standing for re-election by a vote of judges in February 2017.
The announced candidates to replace him as chief of the state’s second largest circuit are Circuit Judges Alfred F. Horowitz, Carlos A. Rodriguez and Jack Tuter.
In the past, Broward chief judges have lobbied for specialty courts, for new and improved court facilities and for better file management service from the clerk of the court. Most recently, Weinstein exchanged written blows with Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who accused the court of entrapping low-income defendants in a cycle of debt and jail through the use of “convenience bail bonds.”
Replied Weinstein: “Howard can write what he wants, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.”
Tuter declined to discuss his candidacy. Horowitz and Rodriguez did not respond to voicemails left at their chambers.
Weinstein declined to discuss the election. Three years ago, however, he named Tuter to serve as acting chief judge in his absence.
The chief judge oversees the circuit court’s budget, supervises the senior administrative staff and court administrator, and decides where the court’s judges will be assigned. The chief also establishes local rules, sets court calendars and even decides who works on weekends.
When judicial vacancies occur, the governor and local judicial nominating commissions have been known to solicit the chief judge’s opinion on who should be appointed to fill off-election-year vacancies.
Weinstein served three terms as chief
Weinstein, who served as a Florida state senator for 14 years, has served more than 18 years on the bench of the 17th Judicial Circuit, the second largest circuit court in Florida. He became a judge by gubernatorial appointment in 1998.
In 2015, Weinstein won a third two-year term as chief judge in what he described at the time as a “very hotly contested race.” He edged Horowitz 46 to 42 in the balloting by Broward’s judges. After the victory, Weinstein made it clear that the third term would be his last.
Horowitz, who is making his second consecutive run for the post, currently presides in the court’s family division. He was appointed to the circuit bench in 2000 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush after serving five years as a county court judge. Between 1986 and 1995, he was in private practice at Horowitz & Rolnick. He earned his law degree from Samford University and a Masters in Taxation from New York University. His wife, Giuseppina Miranda, is a county court judge
Rodriguez presides in the civil division. He moved to Fort Lauderdale from Cuba in 1962 at the age of 5. His family sought political asylum in 1967, and he became an American citizen. Rodriguez earned his law degree from the University of Florida. Before taking the bench, he spent three years as a Broward Assistant Public Defender and two years as a Chief Assistant Public Defender. He spent 23 years in private practice with the Fazio, Dawson firm and later operated his own firm, handling both criminal and civil cases.
Tuter is the administrative judge in the circuit’s civil division. In 2013, he served as acting chief during a short-term absence by Weinstein. In 2014, The Federal Judicial Nominating Commission interviewed Tuter for a U.S. District Court vacancy in the Southern District of Florida.
Tuter ascended to the Broward bench in 2005 when he was appointed to fill a vacancy by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. He has been elected twice to full six-year terms. His current term expires in 2021. Before becoming a judge, he was in private practice with Conrad & Scherer, and with Stephens, Lynn, Klein, Lacava, Hoffman & Puya. Prior to that, he was a managing attorney with American International Group. Tutor earned his law degree from Memphis State University.
Few judges have occupied the chief judge post over the last two and a half decades.
Weinstein’s immediate predecessor, Circuit Judge Victor Tobin, left the bench in 2011 after a four-year stint as chief judge. During his term as chief, Tobin criticized Clerk of Courts Howard Forman over the management of courthouse paperwork.
Tobin was an early promoter of constructing a new main courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale to replace a building notorious for water leaks that saturated files, generated mold and fouled the air. A tower building eventually did rise, at cost of $262 million, and it recently received a certificate of occupancy from the city. But the county says it’s not ready to open.
After leaving the court, Tobin entered private practice with the foreclosure law firm of Marshall C. Watson to help it improve its “best practices.” The firm was among several from around Florida that drew scrutiny from the State Attorney General’s Office over its handling of foreclosure case paperwork.
Tobin was preceded by the longest tenured holder of the chief judge’s office, Dale Ross, who retired from the bench in early September after 35 years as a judge.
Ross held the chief judge’s post from 1990 until 2007, a stretch that saw him embroiled in a number of controversies. Defense lawyers – most notably the public defender Howard Finkelstein — called him insensitive to the indigent. An appellate court called him pro-prosecution. Many lawyers found him to be brusque. And for years, he refused to speak with reporters from the Daily Business Review, the 17th Judicial Circuit’s official court newspaper.
Still, Ross was credited with several innovations that occurred on his watch: the establishment of a Drug Court, a Mental Health Court and a court for domestic violence victims.
Ross left the bench with two years remaining on his judicial term. The 17th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission has sent a short list of candidates to Gov. Rick Scott to fill the vacancy by appointment.