Judicial Candidates Must Court Voters Subtly Regulations Demand They Appear Impartial

Article excerpt

Byline: Rich Tucker, Times-Union staff writer

********** CLARIFICATION August 14, 2002

Judicial candidate David M. Gooding has raised about $80,000 in campaign contributions as of June 30, the most recent dates available. Because the Florida Department of State did not reflect the most recent fund-raising activity on its Web site, a story on Page A-1 yesterday did not have the latest figure.

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Candidates for judge are politicians with one hand tied behind their backs.

Like many who run for public office, they raise money, print pamphlets and sic political consultants on one another in hopes of drawing blood.

But a Florida judicial race is politics lite. Candidates cannot pitch platforms, announce political affiliations or make pledges about cases on which they could be asked to rule if elected. They may talk about their qualifications, their links to the community and their distaste for crime. But that's about all.

So even though attending a fund-raiser for a legislative candidate at a Northside Jacksonville church was a politically savvy move for a typical politician seeking votes from that area, for judicial candidate Dan Wilensky it was potentially detrimental.

When Wilensky learned the nature of the event, he turned and made for the parking lot. "I thought I was going to a church service," he said. "I have to go."

Wilensky is running against David M. Gooding for an open seat on the bench of the 4th Judicial Circuit, which covers Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. For the upcoming Sept. 10 election, each received an 85-page guide on judicial campaign regulations to illustrate what candidates can and cannot say and do.

In theory, those rules are designed to protect the integrity of the judicial system while preserving candidates' appearance of impartiality.

In practice, the rigors of modern politics produce judicial races where many issues cannot be discussed openly, and campaigns become personal.

When asked about his partisan allegiances, Gooding explains he cannot say whether is a Democrat or a Republican. Instead, he calls himself a "commonsense conservative" who believes in a strict interpretation of the Constitution. At one breakfast-time campaign stop, that answer produced a few winks and nods among listeners, but Gooding's political advisers say such a response is well within the rules.

Wilensky says he takes a similar tack with such questions, emphasizing his experience as a lawyer and his dedication to community service.

Chief Judge Donald Moran said hedging on party allegiance is inevitable in judicial races and appropriate if it helps voters learn a little more about candidates without violating election rules.

"It's very hard for a candidate to just go around and say, 'Vote for me, I've practiced two years longer than my opponent and I'm active in my community,' " Moran said. "I don't know how a voter is supposed to pick based just on that."

But Hank Coxe, a Jacksonville attorney who represented the Bar at the candidates' forum on campaign rules, said candidates' hinting at political affiliation violates the spirit of rules governing a judicial race.

"When you say things like that, you're trying to appeal to constituents, and judges aren't supposed to have constituents," Coxe said. "They shouldn't have any play other than following the law."

ROOM FOR AMBIGUITY

Amid the delicate process of running for judge, there is all the acrimony and elbow-swinging of a regular race. Political advisers are paid not only to help schedule campaign events but to watch the other guys. And within the tight confines of the rules, potential violations abound.

As candidates try to project a judgelike image for voters, consultants circulate pictures of opponents' wives attending political luncheons and quietly allege judicial campaign violations. …