Editor’s note: FLORIDA TODAY’s Editorial Board has chosen to recommend candidates running for seats in Brevard County in 2020. We base our recommendations on interviews with the candidates and research into their background. The Editorial Board is the opinion arm of FLORIDA TODAY and operates separately and independently from our news side. To learn more about recommendations, click here.
In the race for 18th Judicial Circuit Judge, Group 15 voters will choose between an incumbent with broad support from the legal community and a challenger with bold ideas.
FLORIDA TODAY’s Editorial Board recommends Judge Tesha Scolaro Ballou.
Her opponent Michael Bross has had an impressive 34-year career and worked on big criminal cases, including death penalty ones. But his attitude toward a client who filed a complaint against him in 2012 — and which was later dismissed with Bross taking a diversion program — gave us pause.
The election for Seat 15, which covers Brevard and Seminole counties, happens in the Aug. 18 primary and is open to all voters regardless of party affiliation.
More: 2020 elections: We recommend Sam Bookhardt for 18th Circuit Judge Group 25 | Our view
More: 2020 elections: We recommend Donna Goerner in 18th Circuit Judge Group 21 | Our view
More: 2020 elections: We recommend Steve Henderson for 18th Circuit Judge Seat 18 | Our view
Ballou was appointed to the bench by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019 to fill a vacancy. Her appointment was controversial because Ballou was not among the four nominees the 18th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, an autonomous nonpartisan group that selects judicial nominees, initially recommended. The governor’s office asked that her name and the name of another attorney be added.
We do not like that Ballou’s nomination politicized a process that should be free of political interference (the governor’s office denied that was the case at the time). She said the controversy doesn’t have “anything whatsoever to do with my qualifications or ability to be a judge.” We agree.
In the 18th Circuit, judges rotate annually hearing felony criminal cases, including capital cases, civil actions where the amount in controversy is $15,000 or greater and cases that traditionally don’t involve juries such as probate of estates, mortgage foreclosures, juvenile cases, injunctions, dissolution of marriage actions and adoptions. Ballou currently presides over criminal cases.
During our interview with the candidates, we weren’t impressed with Ballou’s answer on what judges should do to address one of the biggest obstacles to justice: their ability to hear cases in a timely manner and reduce backlog. Ballou said she runs an “efficient docket,” that she closes a large number of cases and understands what it’s like for lawyers to be waiting for hearings. We were hoping to hear bolder, innovative ideas on that important topic, which has become even more pressing with delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But we also know that although judges are elected, their job isn’t to wow audiences — but to follow the law, be fair, patient, empathetic and good listeners.
Ballou, the daughter of an Irish mother and a second-generation Sicilian immigrant father, has wanted to be a judge since age 9. That’s clear in her calm, respectful and composed demeanor.
“I have built a solid reputation for being fair, for treating litigants and attorneys with courtesy and respect,” she said. “The recurring theme is that I am knowledgeable there, courteous and patient and that I have the right temperament.”
Before Ballou’s appointment, she was a general magistrate and previously worked as a prosecutor for the 5th Circuit State Attorney’s Office and as a regional director for the Florida Department of Children and Families. She is endorsed by 18th Circuit State Attorney Phil Archer and Public Defender Blaise Trettis. We believe voters should make up their own mind regardless of endorsements, including our own recommendations, but getting support from both sides of the court room is notable.
Bross, who owns his own law firm in Brevard County, impressed us with his answer to how he’d address backlogs. He spoke passionately against judges “randomly” postponing hearings “because they don’t want to work on certain matters.”
“Justice delayed is justice denied and we have too many delays without justifiable reasoning and the courts allowed that to happen and they run these cases for years and they wonder why their dockets are so loaded,” he said.
Bross has focused on criminal law and he has also handled administrative, civil, personal injury, workers compensation and family law cases, he said.
Bross has been in trouble with the Florida Bar three times. The first two happened enough time ago and shouldn’t count against him: a 1997 public reprimand for going on vacation and missing a trial he said at the time he thought was rescheduled, and a 10-day suspension in 1998 for trust accounting rule violations.
His most recent issue with the Bar didn’t result in disciplinary action. However, after reading the case files, it raised questions about his temperament.
In 2014, Bross was required to take a “practice and professionalism enhancement program” after a court-appointed referee found he didn’t ” clearly communicate” with his client about his criminal case.
Bross disclosed what appeared to be confidential information about his client in his response to the complaint (he denied doing so) and made “disparaging and humiliating remarks” about the client, including that he should have charged the client the full cost of a retainer and that he hoped “the State Attorney and the Court gives you the full measure of the law you so rightly deserve,” according to court documents.
The Florida Bar closed the disciplinary file and the case didn’t end up on his record as professional misconduct, records show.
Bross told us the client filed a complaint because he was upset he didn’t get a plea deal. We understand conflicts between lawyers and defendants happen. The complaint itself isn’t the problem, but Bross’ berating of his client worried us. Would he maintain the decorum we expect from a judge?
FLORIDA TODAY’s editorials are decided collectively by its Editorial Board. Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. To respond to this editorial in a letter to the editor, email up to 250 words to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, place of residence and phone number.
Read or Share this story: https://www.floridatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/07/20/we-recommend-tesha-scolaro-ballou-18th-circuit-judge-group-15/5417684002/