Nassau County Judge's Early Retirement Triggers Court Battle Involving Governor

Jun 11, 2018

A committee interviewing applicants for a Northeast Florida judge seat Monday was halted in the middle of its work by an order from a Tallahassee judge.

That’s after the same Leon County circuit judge last week blocked the governor’s ability to appoint someone to fill the Nassau County vacancy.

The dispute stems from the upcoming retirement of Judge Robert Foster, who is leaving days before his term officially ends, allowing Gov. Rick Scott to make an appointment.

Foster was expected to leave office at the end of his term on January 7, 2019. But in April he sent a letter to Scott making his retirement effective December 31, 2018, or four business days ahead of schedule.

Jacksonville attorney David Trotti sued to be able to run for the seat, and Circuit Judge Charles Dodson agreed. Dodson wrote that the “creation of an artificial appointment” had occurred. “The right of our citizens to vote, as specifically provided for in the Constitution with regard to the election of our trial judges, is sacred,” Dodson wrote.

He also said Trotti should be listed on the state Division of Elections website as qualified to run, which he was not as of Monday afternoon. 

But the ruling didn’t stop Scott from having the Fourth Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission proceed to interview some of the 18 applicants for the job as his administration appeals the decision.

Nominating Commission Chairman Pat Kilbane said his group was halfway through interviewing the fifth candidate Monday.

“We had some applicants from Clay County, we had some from Nassau and we had one applicant who lives in Broward County, so we had one applicant come up from Broward County," he said. 

The process was halted indefinitely, though, by a phone call from the governor’s office. Tallahassee Judge Charles Dodson had granted an injunction sought by Trotti.

In an email to the Fourth Judicial Circuit Nominating Commission on Monday, Scott general council Daniel Nordby wrote, in part “We are subject to an injunction requiring us to ‘suspend all of the Fourth Judicial Circuit’s Judicial Nominating Commission’s activities’ to fill the vacancy created by Judge Foster’s resignation. I therefore request that you suspend the interview and nomination process until further notice.”

Nordby continued, “I regret the extreme inconvenience that this decision will cause for the members of the JNC and the applicants who were preparing to interview with the JNC today. We specifically asked the Court to delay the effect of the ruling to allow the JNC to complete its interview process today, but that request, too, was denied. I understand that you have a number of outstanding and well-qualified attorneys and judges seeking to fill this vacancy. Should we prevail on appeal, I look forward to meeting each of the nominees and discussing their interest in serving as a circuit judge in the Fourth Judicial Circuit.”

In similar disputes, the Florida State Department has taken the position that Scott’s acceptance of a judicial resignation creates a vacancy that will be filled by appointment, rather than election.

The Candidates As Profiled By our news partner The Jacksonville Daily Record:

Janet Abel

Director, 4th Judicial Circuit Office of Regional Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel

Age: 42

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2001

Education: University of Kentucky, bachelor’s in political science, 1998; University of Dayton School of Law, J.D., 2001

Career: An assistant public defender in Jacksonville from 2001 to 2006, Abel then went into private criminal law practice until she joined the civil regional counsel in 2008. She serves as a judge in Duval County Teen Court.

Lester Bass

Duval County Judge

Age: 55

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 1989

Education: Duke University, bachelor’s degree, 1985; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Law School, J.D., 1988

Career: Bass was appointed to the Duval County bench by Gov. Rick Scott in 2014 after 11 years as a general magistrate and civil traffic hearing officer in the 4th Judicial Circuit. He began his legal career as a staff attorney at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and from 1992 to 1994 was an assistant state attorney in the 4th Judicial Circuit. Bass serves on the boards of directors of the Boy Scouts of America North Florida Council and the Ritz Chamber Players.

William Beard

Director for county court, 4th Judicial Circuit Public Defender’s Office

Age: 64

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 1992

Education: University of Tennessee, bachelor’s degree, 1980; Cumberland Law School, J.D., 1991 Army War College, master’s in strategic studies, 2005.

Career: Beard is a former assistant public defender and assistant state attorney in Palm Beach County. He joined the Army Reserve as a private in 1980 and was honorably discharged in 2014 with the rank of major general. He worked as a consultant for the Department of Defense Special Operations focused on unconventional warfare and international rule of law.

Melina Buncome

Assistant Public Defender

Age: 53

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 1994

Education: University of the Virgin Islands, bachelor’s degree, 1987; Nova Southeastern University Law School, J.D., 1993

Career: Buncome is a former assistant public defender in the 17th Judicial Circuit and was in private practice before becoming an assistant public defender in Jacksonville in 1997. She currently is the Circuit Court Division chief. Buncome is vice chair of The Florida Bar Constitutional Judiciary Committee and has served on the Judicial Evaluation Committee and the Law Related Education Committee.

Janet Carver

Carver Law Firm

Age: 64

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2000

Education: University of Florida, master’s in nursing administration, 1994; Florida Coastal School of Law, J.D. 1999; Stetson University College of Law, LL.M. in elder law, 2008

Career: Carver’s practice in Fernandina Beach is focused on elder law. She has been working part-time since 2016 as a general magistrate and hearing officer in Nassau County. Before enrolling in law school, Carver was a registered nurse, nurse practitioner and director of education at an eye hospital in Saudi Arabia.

Michael T. Fackler

Shareholder at Milam, Howard, Nicandri Gillam & Renner PA

Age: 46

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2002

Education: Northwestern University, bachelor’s degree in 1993; University of Florida Levin College of Law, J.D., 2002

Career: Fackler was a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger for two years after graduating from law school. He joined the McGuireWoods law firm in 2004 and then joined the Milam Howard firm in 2007 as an associate attorney. He became a partner on Jan. 1, 2016. Fackler has a general commercial litigation practice.

Charles M. Greene

17th Judicial Circuit Judge

Age: 61

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 1983

Education: Union College, bachelor’s in political science, 1978; Nova Southeastern Law Center, J.D., 1982

Career: Greene began his career as an assistant state attorney in Fort Lauderdale and also was in private practice before he was elected to the bench in 1990. His current six-year term expires Jan. 4, 2021. In his application, Greene said he and his wife have been part-time residents of Amelia Island for 27 years. He is an active member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Aviation Branch, where he serves as an aircraft commander.

Leslie Ann Hendricks

Senior attorney, Department of Children and Families

Age: Redacted

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 1989

Education: University of South Carolina, bachelor’s in business administration, 1985; Vanderbilt University School of Law, J.D., 1989

Career: Hendricks was an assistant state attorney in Tampa from 1989 to 1993. She joined the Department of Children and Families in 1993. In 1999, she began managing the department’s legal offices in Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties, where she supervises a staff of about 35 attorneys, paralegals and secretaries. She specializes in juvenile dependency and termination of parental rights cases.

James Kallaher

Senior associate, Law Offices of Bohdan Neswiacheny

Age: Redacted

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2001

Education: University of Missouri, bachelor’s in economics, 1988; Florida Coastal School of Law, J.D., 2000

Career: From 1989 to 1997, Kallaher was a U.S. Navy flight instructor and was discharged from the reserves in 2013 with the rank of commander. He was an assistant state attorney in the 4th Judicial Circuit from 2001 to 2003 before going into private practice. Kallaher specializes in insurance defense commercial litigation and construction defect litigation.

Robin E. Lanigan

4th Judicial Circuit general magistrate and hearing officer

Age: 49

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2000

Education: University of Tennessee at Knoxville, bachelor of arts, 1992; Florida Coastal School of Law, J.D., 2000

Career: While in private practice, Lanigan specialized in family law. Since becoming a magistrate in November 2016, she has conducted more than 1,500 family law hearings. As an adjunct professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville’s paralegal program, she taught family law from 2008 through 2011.

Jon Courson Lasserre

Shareholder, Rogers Towers

Age: 42

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2011

Education: Georgia Institute of Technology, bachelor’s in management, 1998; Florida Coastal School of Law, J.D., 2010.

Career: Before joining the Rogers Towers Fernandina office in November 2015, Lasserre was in private practice in Fernandina Beach. He specializes in real estate transactions and litigation, land use and planning, civil litigation and estate planning and probate work. He has served on the Baptist Medical Center Nassau board of directors since 2007 and currently is secretary and vice chairman.

Rhonda Peoples-Waters

President and owner, Rhonda Peoples-Waters PA

Age: 44

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 1999

Education: Fisk University, bachelor of business administration, 1996; University of Florida Levin College of Law, J.D., 1999

Career: Peoples-Waters was an assistant public defender in Jacksonville from 1999 to 2007. She’s now in private practice and specializes in criminal law and also represents plaintiffs in personal injury litigation. Peoples-Waters is a former member of the City of Jacksonville Ethics Commission and was president of the D.W. Perkins Bar Association in 2008-09.

Erin Townsend Perry

Assistant state attorney, 4th Judicial Circuit

Age: 36

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2007

Education: University of Florida, bachelor of science, 2004; University of Florida Levin College of Law, J.D., 2007

Career: Perry is chief of the Circuit Court Division, where she supervises four attorneys and a staff and manages nearly 400 cases for the division. She is a homicide and major crimes prosecutor.

Harrison W. Poole

Shareholder, Poole & Poole PA

Age: 35

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2008

Education: Florida State University, bachelor’s in business management, 2004; Florida State University College of Law, J.D., 2007

Career: Poole was an assistant state attorney in the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee for almost two years before going into private practice at Poole & Poole in Fernandina Beach in 2009. He describes his law firm as a “general, small town legal practice” that handles civil litigation, real estate transactions, estates and probate and general business matters.

Chanda Leigh Rogers

Partner and equity shareholder at Faltemier Rogers PLLC

Age: 40

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2005

Education: Louisiana Tech University, bachelor’s in political science, 2000; Florida Coastal School of Law, J.D., 2004

Career: Rogers joined the Law Office of Valerie Faltemier in Fernandina Beach in 2006 and became a partner in 2016. She represents men and women in family law matters. She was president of the Nassau County Bar Association in 2009-10.

Brett Lee Steger

Partner, Davis, Broussard & Steger PLLC

Age: 37

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 2013

Education: University of North Florida, bachelor’s in criminal justice, 2003; Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University, J.D., 2007

Career: After law school, Steger practiced in Macon, Georgia until 2014 when he moved to Fernandina Beach and became a partner in the Davis, Broussard, Martin, Bernard & Steger law firm. He has a general litigation practice with clients in Florida and Georgia. Steger is president of the Nassau County Bar Association.

Julie K. Taylor

Court counsel for the 4th Judicial Circuit

Age: 47

Admitted to The Florida Bar: 1996

Education: University of Florida, bachelor’s in English, 1992; Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, J.D., 1996

Career: Taylor assists Chief Judge Mark Mahon and the circuit and county judges in Clay, Duval and Nassau counties with the administration of court functions. She is a former assistant state attorney, assistant public defender and private practice attorney.

David G. Tucker

Northeast regional counsel, Department of Children and Families

Age: 56

Admitted to The Florida Bar:: 1987

Education: University of Michigan, bachelor’s degree, 1984; University of Florida Levin College of Law, J.D., 1987

Career: In addition to being regional counsel for the state Department of Children and Families, Tucker is appointed an informal hearing officer and special hearing officer. He presides over contested adoption reviews, evidentiary hearings and child care licensing issues. He teaches administrative law as an adjunct professor at Florida Coastal School of Law.

Contact Jessica Palombo at 904-358-6315jpalombo@wjct.org or on Twitter at @JessicaPubRadio.