Forum held for local judicial candidates
A forum Wednesday for a local judicial race touched on how the candidates would assure that those in their courtroom receive justice and the judges they identify with.
Miquel C. Fernandez III and Frank Mann Jr. are vying for the Group 3 County Court Judge seat in the general election Nov. 2. A nonpartisan race, a winner would have been declared in the primary election had one candidate earned a majority vote. Out of a field of four, Fernandez and Mann took the most votes to move on to the general election.
Both men were invited to attend the hour-long forum, hosted by the Lee County Chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, at the Lee County Commission building in downtown Fort Myers. Fernandez was present, and Mann was represented by his brother, Ian Mann.
Mann explained that his brother had a scheduling conflict, a last-minute fund-raiser that a group wanted to throw for him, but that he would try to answer what he could for him.
“It’s the part you don’t necessarily love about politics,” he said. “I’m sure he wishes he could be here.”
With only a handful of people in attendee, only one question was asked from the audience. Attorney Robert Harris of the Robert Harris Law Firm in Fort Myers asked how the candidates would see that the general public gets justice before the court.
“I think judges stand in a unique position to not only apply the law but to encourage people,” Fernandez said. “I really like the Judge Judy approach.”
He said people have expressed to him that they feel they are not welcome in court.
“This is their court system and we’re here to help,” Fernandez said.
He said the court should consider that the involved parties are people, each case should receive adequate time and clarity is needed when judges withhold rulings or judgements.
Mann argued that a judge withholding a decision is necessary at times, such as to keep the involved parties in a contentious case from having an outburst in the courtroom.
“There are times when a judge needs to take issues under advisement,” he said.
As for how his brother would see that justice is received, Mann explained that his brother works as a mediator, primarily in family mediations. He said county judges deal with small claims, landlord issues and such, work that requires one to “listen to both sides and make a fair determination.”
The majority of the forum took a question-and-answer format with a moderator, Attorney Spencer Cordell of the local chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Cordell asked the candidates which Supreme Court or Florida Supreme Court justices they identify with.
Mann said he could not answer for his brother.
Fernandez said Florida Supreme Court Judge Barbara J. Pariente for her “consistent and tireless effort to improve public perception of the system,” for fostering greater diversity on the bench and for improving access to the court system for pro se parties, or people who represent themselves.
Fernandez also cited Supreme Court Justice John Roberts for his stance on judges remaining impartial and fair.
“He stands out for me and he’s the one I most identify with,” he said.
Cordell also questioned the candidates about the importance of experience.
Both agreed that it is important to have relevant practice experience for the seat.
Fernandez said county courts do not preside over family law, the majority of his opponent’s practice. He said he worked for the State Attorney’s Office for two years before opening a firm, practicing mostly criminal defense but other areas as well.
“I’ve been doing that for the past 22 years,” Fernandez said.
Mann countered that his brother has relevant experience outside of his focus of civil litigation and family law. When he was with a law firm, he was assigned random cases that would come in, cases that fall under the power of county courts, Mann explained.
“That’s not what he ended up doing a lot of as the years went by,” he said.
“Certainly you’d like to have the person with the experience,” Mann said. “But county court is, to a certain extent, the lower court.”
Questioned about the importance of jury trial and bench trial experience, Mann said he knows current county judges who had “zero trial experience when they took the bench.”
Fernandez said the relevance of the experience is that county judges are occasionally asked to stand in for a circuit judge in a criminal or civil case. He added that he has more than 100 bench trials and more than 80 jury trials under his belt.
Both Frank Mann and Fernandez have previously run for circuit court judge seats.
“It is important for somebody to have the skills to listen, but that’s not where it stops … It’s knowing what to listen for,” Fernandez said. “Trial lawyers make the best trial judges. I’m looking to do the job and hopefully raise the bar.”
Mann said whatever way voters go, they will get a good judge in the end.
“Your choice for a judicial candidate is difficult,” he said.