Judicial races are usually rather low-key affairs, in part because of restrictions that limit the topics candidates can discuss.
But the race between incumbent Pinellas County Judge Myriam Irizarry and state Rep. Dwight Dudley is heating up as the Aug. 30 election approaches.
Dudley, a Democrat who left the House to run for the judiciary, is focusing on experience. According to a recent mailer sent to voters across Pinellas, he has a lot and Irizarry has “zero” — at least when it comes to trying cases and representing clients in court as a “Florida attorney.”
The implication, of course, is that Irizarry has zero trial experience.
Irizarry said Wednesday that the mailer, and its implication, are a “misrepresentation” of her legal experience. And, she said, it ignores the experience she’s gained the past year on the bench.
Irizarry is a native of Puerto Rico whose family moved to New York when she was a child. She and her six siblings were raised by a single mother. With help from tuition-aid programs, she was graduated from Rutgers College and Rutgers-Newark School of Law and was admitted to practice in 1981.
She spent the next 14 years gaining trial experience representing indigents for housing and family law issues, working in the public defender’s office and in private practice. In the public defender’s office alone, she said she tried 20 cases.
Irizarry followed her family to Florida and joined The Florida Bar in 1995. She went to work for the Pinellas County Clerk of Court. Her first job involved teaching the clerks about criminal law and legal procedures. She was promoted through the ranks until she became general counsel for the Clerk of Court and oversaw the smooth running of the office and court system. Her duties included representing the clerk’s office in administrative hearings and conducting hearings over employment disputes.
Between her work in New Jersey and Florida, she said, she gained widespread experience that has helped her since she was appointed to the bench last year by Gov. Rick Scott. That’s in part because a county judge can be appointed to any court — from misdemeanor crimes to felony cases to civil or domestic cases.
“I came in ready to be assigned everywhere” rather than being limited to one area of the law, she said.
Since then, Irizarry said, she has gained experience as a judge, overseeing more than 8,000 cases, arraignments, motions, and hearings. And she has presided over more than 30 jury trials. She is presiding in misdemeanor court where the majority of cases are DUIs, batteries, retail theft, and possession of marijuana.
Dudley’s mailer, she said, also does not take into account the complicated job of judge. Having trial experience, she said, is just one part of it.
“In the world of trials, a trial is a trial is a trial, in terms of openings, closings” and other procedures, Irizarry said.
Judges have to be able to juggle several tasks at one time. And they have to be an effective listener to quickly get to the heart of issues.
“You need all of those skills to be a good judge,” Irizarry said.
The non-partisan judicial election is Tuesday. Voters do not have to be registered by party to cast a ballot.