Friday, April 24, 2020

Last-minute maneuvers allow Jacksonville lawyer to become judge without an election. (Florida Times-Union)

Last-minute maneuvers allow Jacksonville lawyer to become judge without an election

By Andrew Pantazi
Posted Apr 24, 2020 at 6:15 PM

Shortly before the noon deadline to qualify for an election, a Jacksonville judge withdrew his name from consideration and another lawyer filed. This allowed 37-year-old Michael Kalil to be elected as a Circuit judge without an election — and sparked outrage in the legal community.

Questionable last-minute maneuvering Friday has left Jacksonville with the reality that a new judge was elected, despite no election occurring.

Just before the Friday noon deadline to qualify for election, Circuit Judge Tyrie Boyer withdrew his name from consideration at the same time that Michael Kalil, the 37-year-old son of a wealthy tobacco plaintiffs attorney, filed for the election. Kalil is also the cousin of at least two Duval County judges, Michelle Kalil and Michael Bateh.

By the time the state's elections website noted the change, it was too late for anyone else to file for the election. Kalil is the newest judge-designate in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.

Kalil and Boyer did not return repeated requests for comment to their personal and work phone numbers and emails. Circuit judges handle felonies, serious lawsuits, estates, juvenile crime and some appeals.

The news sparked swift outrage in Jacksonville's legal world.

"This is the good ol' boy network full-fledged," said Leslie Jean-Bart, a plaintiff's attorney at Terrell Hogan law firm. "This is what's been happening for decades. This is why we don't have diversity on the bench. Out of everything that's involved with politics, the judiciary should be above this."

In a letter dated Wednesday, Boyer attached a check to qualify for re-election. That letter was received and processed Thursday. Then in a letter dated Thursday, which he said he faxed, he said he was withdrawing from the election and wanted his money back. The letter, despite being dated the day before, was received Friday morning at 10:40 a.m.

An hour and a half earlier, the state processed Kalil's paperwork, qualifying him for the ballot.

The deadline to qualify, which meant the deadline to have a check delivered to the offices in Tallahassee, was noon Friday.

"The objective facts are very distressing to me as a former president of the Florida Bar because of the effects it has on the election process as a judge," said Jesse Diner of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Fort Lauderdale.

"It probably doesn't pass the smell test and somebody ought to be looking into it further. ... It raises all sorts of concerns from an ethical standpoint. You could probably tee up any number of hypotheticals that would be troubling. The election process is not designed or intended to be this way.

"When a judge is supposed to be fair, impartial and beyond reproach, something like this, that maybe is an end-run around the election process, it just doesn't feel right," he said. "It's as simple as that."

He said he hopes the state Judicial Qualifications Commission investigates, as well as the Florida Bar, the State Attorney's Office and anyone else who has the authority to do so.

Alan Bookman, another past president of the Florida Bar, agreed "that doesn't pass the smell test."

"That puts a real damper on the judiciary," he said. "That impacts not just the judiciary in Jacksonville, but throughout the state. Assuming it was a setup, the electorate is being denied the right to have competition for a judicial seat and that's not good at all. That violates all kinds of standards."

He said there's an unwritten rule that lawyers don't challenge sitting judges, so attorneys pay close attention to when seats are opening up because a judge isn't running for re-election. Judges, he said, should not be waiting until the last minute to allow someone with inside knowledge to be the only one who files in time to qualify.

"Assuming it was structured that way in some fashion, that's a big black eye on the judiciary," he said.

He said it's possible that between Thursday when Boyer's check was received and Friday when his fax was received that Boyer had a change of heart because of some personal issue that arose. But without being able to talk to Boyer, there's no way of knowing.

The Times-Union has requested emails from Boyer that mention Kalil.

Chief Judge Mark Mahon said his job is limited to overseeing the administration of the court. "The only thing I can say on the record is I'm just happy for those judges who are going to be returning. I know we're going to welcome the new judge with Michael Kalil, and I know we have two contested elections.

"Those kinds of matters of when they retire and what they're doing are very personal. I've learned in the past that's a person's own personal business."

Jim Kowalski, executive director of the Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, said he's never seen anything like this in 30 years of practicing law.

"I think this is going to take a lot of people by surprise," he said, "and it's going to open up a mechanism that we did not know previously exist."

Bill Sheppard, a civil-rights attorney in town, said that while he opposes judicial elections to begin with because he thinks they aren't an appropriate way to pick judges, the last-minute changes here look inappropriate.

"If it smells like a skunk, it probably is a skunk," he said.

Kalil had earlier filed for an open race when most people thought Circuit Judge Gregg McCaulie wouldn't run for re-election. Kalil put $300,000 of his own money in his campaign, but he drew a challenger in family and criminal defense attorney Rhonda Peoples-Waters.

Peoples-Waters, a family and criminal defense attorney, has been selected as a finalist for judicial appointments at least seven times and previously ran in an election against Michelle Kalil. During her brief campaign, she highlighted the fact that if elected, she'd be the first black woman elected as a circuit judge in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. Angela Cox, who is also an African-American woman, was appointed in 2014 and was unopposed after that.

During Peoples-Waters' subsequent interview for a judicial appointment, Kalil's father, John Kalil, sat in on the interview and left afterward.

McCaulie eventually resigned his position. Instead of an election, the governor appointed a successor.

Peoples-Waters, who is running against Duval County Judge Erin Perry, said she "would have appreciated the opportunity to consider [running for] another open seat" instead.

"Our community is losing their democracy," she said. "We're losing the ability to participate in a system that was designed for us to participate in. We're losing this because of the backroom deal. The private exchanges that are going on at the cost of our democracy.

"I don't care who the hell doesn't like that I said that. We've got to be honest about this. It's no longer about qualifications. It's about who can make the best deal."

She said last-minute machinations like this leaves attorneys who don't come from a place of privilege out of the conversation.

"You mean to tell me that sitting in there and having those types of relationships [with two cousins on the bench] didn't afford him whatever insider knowledge assisted him to be able to make this move? That's what we're talking about when we're talking about diversity doesn't afford us these types of opportunities."

Andrew Pantazi: (904) 359-4310

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