Two judges

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Gal Tziper­man Lotan Staff Writer

in Or­ange and Osce­ola coun­ties de­cide not to seek re-elec­tion in the fi­nal days be­fore the qual­i­fy­ing pe­riod for can­di­dates ends. The re­sult is good news to at least one op­pos­ing can­di­date.

Two judges in Or­ange and Osce­ola coun­ties de­cided not to seek re-elec­tion in the fi­nal days be­fore the the qual­i­fy­ing pe­riod for can­di­dates ended May 4.

As a re­sult, the Osce­ola seat now held by County Judge Heather O’Brien will go to the only re­main­ing can­di­date. The same thing al­most hap­pened in Or­ange, where a sec­ond can­di­date slid into the race the day Cir­cuit Judge Jose Ro­driguez an­nounced his re­tire­ment.

Both sit­ting judges will keep work­ing through the year. Ro­driguez earns $160,688 as a cir­cuit judge, and O’Brien $151,822 as a county judge, state pay­roll records show.

In Osce­ola County, O’Brien had $100,000 in her campaign ac­count be­fore she with­drew from the race by not tak­ing the fi­nal steps to qual­ify be­fore May 4. The seat will go to the only per­son who signed up to run against her, cur­rent As­sis­tant State At­tor­ney Gabrielle Nath­leen-Pa­tiana San­ders.

O’Brien said she de­cided not to run at the last minute, and that she did not give any po­ten­tial can­di­dates a heads-up be­fore­hand. She was ap­proached about other jobs, she said, and de­cided to leave the bench to pur­sue those op­por­tu­ni­ties. She also wants to spend more time with her elderly mother, she said.

“I know the tim­ing of it wasn’t re­ally op­por­tune for any­body,” she said.

O’Brien said the de­ci­sion was a dif­fi­cult one for her. She said she en­joyed work­ing with the peo­ple who came to her court­room, who are typ­i­cally ar­rested on less-se­vere charges and ca­pa­ble of be­ing pro­duc­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

“I’m just try­ing to get those peo­ple on a path where they can be suc­cess­ful and stay out of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem,” she said.

San­ders is a mem­ber of the Or­ange-Osce­ola State At­tor­ney’s Of­fice death penalty review board, which has de­cided when to seek cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in mur­der cases since late 2017. She has pros­e­cuted a num­ber of high-pro­file cases in Osce­ola County, in­clud­ing the child-sex abuse trial of mil­lion­aire Loomes Wheeler Jr. and the mur­der of club pro­moter and stu­dent Eric Roop­nar­ine by a group of teenagers.

Ro­driguez sub­mit­ted his no­tice of re­tire­ment on the qual­i­fy­ing dead­line af­ter 31 years on the ju­di­cial bench.

Two peo­ple will be on the bal­lot in the Au­gust pri­mary to re­place him: Tom Young, who Ro­driguez said emailed him to ask whether he was run­ning in the week be­fore the qual­i­fy­ing pe­riod ended; and Joseph Haynes Davis, who was orig­i­nally run­ning in an­other divi­sion and said he changed di­vi­sions the morn­ing of May 4 when he learned Ro­driguez won’t be run­ning.

Ro­driguez said he de­cided not to run on May 2.

Among the fac­tors he said he con­sid­ered were a grow­ing caseload un­mit­i­gated by fund­ing for more judges from the Florida leg­is­la­ture; want­ing to ad­vo­cate for elderly and dis­abled peo­ple; and the health of his 98-year-old fa­ther-in-law.

“I’m 66, and I am strong, I am well,” he said. “And to­mor­row is not guar­an­teed for any­body. So I want to make sure I have the abil­ity to con­tinue to teach. That’s what re­ally ful­fills me, the abil­ity to help oth­ers.”

Ro­driguez said he has heard ru­mors in the le­gal com­mu­nity that he told other at­tor­neys he would re­tire be­fore he of­fi­cially an­nounced the de­ci­sion.

“That is the most fool­ish thing, be­cause the po­si­tion is not mine to en­gi­neer any­thing,” he said. “It’s a pub­lic trust, and I wanted to make sure I would not have any sec­ond thoughts.”

Ro­driguez was the first His­panic judge in Or­ange County when he first took the bench in 1987, he said. In 1993, he moved to the cir­cuit court bench and be­came the first His­panic cir­cuit judge in Or­ange and Osce­ola coun­ties.

Davis said he was check­ing over the ju­di­cial races the morn­ing of May 4 when he saw Ro­driguez was not run­ning.

“How is it that a seat doesn’t come open until the last day, and on the last day it’s only 4 hours to qual­ify?” he asked, re­fer­ring to the mid-day dead­line. “… That’s not good for the process. Had I not switched races, Tom Young would have been un­op­posed be­cause no­body knew.”

Young said he started hear­ing ru­mors May 2 that Ro­driguez had not yet filed to run for re­elec­tion. Be­cause he had known Ro­driguez since try­ing a case in front of him in 2010, he sent him the email ask­ing if he’d run and if Ro­driguez knew if any­one else was jump­ing into the race.

“My con­tact with judge Ro­driguez was out of re­sect for him, hav­ing ap­peared be­fore him, knowing his fam­ily from the His­panic Bar As­so­ci­a­tion and so on,” Young said. “Any­one who was pay­ing at­ten­tion to the races could see that Judge Ro­driguez wasn’t in, and I think peo­ple just weren’t pay­ing at­ten­tion.”

“So I want to make sure I have the abil­ity to con­tinue to teach. That’s what re­ally ful­fills me, the abil­ity to help oth­ers.” Cir­cuit Judge Jose Ro­driguez

County Judge Heather O’Brien and Cir­cuit Judge Jose Ro­driguez de­cided not to seek re-elec­tion.

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