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.