Treasure Coast judges automatically re-elected without opposition

Four judges from the 19th Judicial Circuit and three county judges on the Treasure Coast were automatically re-elected on Friday after drawing no challengers by noon, according to state and local election records.

The 19th Judicial Circuit covers Okeechobee, Martin, St. Lucie, and Indian River counties.

Sitting judges and qualified candidates who have no opposition are considered automatically elected under state election laws.

Two lawyers are vying to replace Circuit Judge Gary Sweet, who is retiring at the end of the year.

Okeechobee Circuit Judge Rebecca White, who was sworn in April 22 after nearly a year on the bench, drew a challenger who qualified before Friday’s noon deadline. The qualifying period began Monday at noon.

Circuit Judge’s Oath: Rebecca White was officially sworn in in a crowded ceremony

In picture :Inauguration ceremony for Circuit Judge Rebecca White at the St. Lucia County Courthouse

Records show that each judge in the election on Nov. 8 chose to pay a qualifying fee rather than the alternative method of collecting signatures from at least 1% of registered voters within their district boundaries.

Circuit and county judges are elected without political party affiliation and serve six-year terms. The annual salary of a circuit judge is $165,509; county judges earn $156,377, according to state records.

Here is who was returned to the bench unopposed:

Chief Circuit Judge Charles A. Schwab

  • Has been a Group 9 circuit judge since 2013.
  • Assists with all circuit matters, including civil and criminal trials.

Group 6 Circuit Judge Michael J. McNicholas

  • Elected in November 2016 to replace F. Shields McManus, who retired
  • Currently assigned to Okeechobee County
  • Chairs all felony cases, substance abuse and mental health cases, and 50% of all domestic relations cases

Group 8 circuit judge Janet Carney Croom

  • Appointed in 2015 by Governor Rick Scott to complete the remaining four years of tenure of retired Circuit Judge Robert A. Hawley Jr..
  • Currently assigned to Indian River County
  • Serves as administrative judge for the Civil Division, presides over all civil litigation in Indian River County

Group 17 Circuit Judge Brett M. Waronicki

  • Appointed in 2020 by Governor Ron DeSantis to replace Circuit Judge Barbara Bronis, who retired
  • Currently assigned to Martin County
  • Presides over all domestic relations matters, including protective orders

Darren Steele, Martin County Judge, Panel 1

  • First appointed to the bench in 2009; re-elected in 2010 and 2016
  • Presides over one-third of all county court cases; delinquency cases, including detention hearings; assist in a crime case

St. Lucie County Group 3 Judge Edmond Alonzo

  • First election in 2016
  • Presiding over all county court civil cases, landlord/tenant cases; all traffic offenses resulting in serious injury or death; 30% of small claims

Robyn Stone, Indian River County Judge, Panel 1

  • Appointed in 2020 by Governor Ron DeSantis to replace outgoing Justice David Morgan
  • Presides over civil, criminal, traffic and appellate cases

Circuit Judge Rebecca White, 39, of Vero Beach, was nominated last year by DeSantis knowing she would be a candidate in the 2022 election.

“I get to meet all my constituents and…I love the job and I do a good job,” she said. “Since I took over, there was a COVID backlog of civil cases, and I’ve already been able to cut civil cases in Okeechobee County in half.”

Since being named to the bench last year, White said she has already presided over hundreds of cases.

“That experience over the past year is more than you could get over many years doing different types of law, because I had to handle several different cases in a huge file,” she said. “It’s something I was used to since I was in the (state’s attorney’s) office because I was dealing with huge cases.”

His challenger, Palm City civil attorney Christopher Van Riper, 49, said his legal training prepared him well to become a circuit judge.

Christian Van Riper

“I have 16 years of experience in a wide range of areas of law, including criminal law as a prosecutor and defense attorney, family law, dependency law and personal injury law “, did he declare. “Before law school, I also worked as an investigator for the Ministry of Children and Families.”

Leatha Dawn Mullins, 54, a former magistrate’s judge, and civil attorney Alexander Stuart Nelson, 47, are vying for the Group 2 position, which is the circuit’s only open judicial seat with Sweet’s impending retirement.

Leatha D. Mullins

Mullins is a former prosecutor serving on her own until January 2017, when she was named the 19th Circuit’s Child Support Enforcement Hearing Officer. In May 2020, she was appointed as the 19th Circuit Magistrate General in Indian River and St. Lucia counties.

After stepping down as a magistrate this week, Mullins said the time had come to pursue a position as a circuit judge and that her career had prepared her for it.

“The timing was perfect. Because I have been a magistrate and a hearing officer for just over five years,” she said. “I think my experience matters and I think I’m ready to move up the judicial ladder.”

Nelson, who practices criminal and family law after working for several years as a government attorney in Broward County, said his dream was to join the bench.

alexander nelson

“I always wanted to be a judge. It’s something that I specifically trained myself to do,” Nelson said. “I’ve handled thousands of cases and represented many, many people and after doing that I think I’d be a good judge because I can read things really well.”

A philosophy graduate, Nelson said he’s trained to dig deeper into the issues of a case and is willing to put in the time needed to get the job done right.

“You have to listen to what everyone has to say, you have to take the time to be a good judge and sit in court and spend time there,” he said.

Mullins and Nelson said they chose to campaign to win a vacancy to avoid challenging a respected colleague currently on the bench.

Melissa E. Holsman is a legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is the editor and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. Contact her at [email protected]

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