Who’s Running for County and Circuit Judge in the August 2018 Primaries?

Published 7/28/18; updated 7/30/18 – 8:45 AM and 7/31/18 – 8:35 PM

Here’s my post about the two judicial elections on Collier County voters’ ballots. These races are the ones I’m most frequently asked about, since judicial races are nonpartisan and candidates can’t discuss issues that may come before them as a judge. This is my final post about what’s on Collier voters’ ballots. Now it’s time to watch what happens as the campaigns heat up. Like many readers, I received my Vote By Mail ballot this week, but I’m not yet ready to fill it in. If there are any last minute surprises, I want to be able to take them into consideration.

In August, all Collier voters will have the opportunity to vote in two judicial elections: one for county judge and one for circuit judge. The terms of office are six-years, and there are no term limits. The elections are nonpartisan: candidates appear on the ballot without reference to any political party. A county judge salary is currently $151,822, and a circuit judge salary is currently $160,688 (see here).

From the Florida Bar’s Guide for Florida Voters

“Both county and circuit judges are trial judges. County judges hear criminal misdemeanors (crimes that have possible sentences of less than one year in jail) and civil cases in which the amount in dispute is $15,000 or less. Circuit judges deal with criminal felonies, domestic relations, juvenile matters, probate issues and civil cases in which the disputed amount is greater than $15,000…. “What makes someone a “good” judge? Judges must be impartial, fair and understand the law. All judges may deal with cases that are either civil or criminal in nature. Knowledge in one particular area is not more important than the other. Judges should be selected based on their legal abilities, temperament and commitment to follow the law and decide cases consistent with a judge’s duty to uphold the law regardless of his or her personal view.”

The candidates – County Judge

There are five candidates for county judge: Blake Adams, Sal Bazaz, James Moon, Michael Nieman and Dominick Russo. Moon, Nieman and Russo completed the Florida Bar’s “Judicial Candidate Voluntary Self-Disclosure Statement;” Adams and Bazaz did not. Links are included below. 

Blake Adams

Blake Adams (blakeadamsforjudge.com) is Collier County Deputy Chief of the Law Offices of Kathleen A. Smith, Public Defender 20th Judicial Circuit. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2010; Bar profile here. He has a BA from William Jewell College, and an MBA and JD from the University of Tulsa. Prior to earning the latter two degrees, Adams spent ten years in the financial services industry (retail banking, investments and mortgages), and owned and managed rental properties. His volunteer activities have included Habitat for Humanity of Collier County; volunteer judge for Collier County Teen Court; courthouse panelist for Youth Leadership Collier; and volunteer for Ave Maria School of Law mock trials. He currently serves on the Criminal Justice Academic Advisory Board of Lely High School. Adams says he should be Collier’s next county judge because he is a “dedicated and experienced public servant” with “Personal Integrity. Community Commitment. Genuine Experience.” His website lists endorsements by State Attorney Steve Russell, Naples Mayor Bill Barnett and Public Defender Kathy Smith, among others.

Sal Bazaz

Sal Bazaz (salbazazforcountyjudge.com) is an attorney (Law Office of Sal Bazaz) specializing in criminal defense and family law in Collier and Lee counties. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2003; Bar profile here. He has a BS from St. John’s University (summa cum laude) and a JD from St. John’s University School of Law. His volunteer activities have included Knights of Columbus; Collier County Bar Association High School Mock Trial Competition; Collier County Homeschool Community Mock Trials; Teen Court; Legal Aid Service of Collier County; and Friends of Foster Children. Bazaz says his experience as both a prosector (Assistant District Attorney in Richmond County, NY; Assistant State Attorney in Lee and Collier Counties) and now, as a defense attorney, set him apart from the other candidates. In addition, he says is one of only ten attorneys in Collier County appointed by the Court to represent parents in Dependency Court. His website lists no endorsements. 

James Moon

James Moon (moonforjudge.com) practices law in the areas of civil, business, and commercial litigation as a partner in the Fort Myers and New York offices of Quintairos Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A., “the largest minority and women owned law firm in the country.” He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1999; Bar profile here, Disclosure Statement here. According to his professional bio, he has a BS from Eastern Michigan University, an MA (with honors) from Saginaw Valley State University, and a JD from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. He also has a ML (cum laude) in international taxation and financial services from Saint Thomas University School of Law and a Graduate Certificate in Anti-Money Laundering, and is a Supreme Court certified mediator. His community activities have included: City of Naples Code Board; Collier County Tax Abatement Board; Junior Achievement volunteer lecturer; Volunteer Judge Ave Maria Law School and Collier County High School Moot Court Programs; FGCU and Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentor; Humane Society; Drug Free Collier; NAMI. He served in the U.S. Army National Guard as an infantryman during the first Gulf War. His website lists endorsements by Naples City Council members Linda Penniman and Terry Hutchison, and more. 

Michael Nieman

Michael D. Nieman (mikenieman.com) is Collier County’s Ethics and Compliance Counsel, reporting to the County Manager. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2009; Bar profile here, Disclosure Statement here. He has a BA from The American University and a JD from New York Law School. Prior to joining the County Manager’s Office in 2015, his legal career included time as a prosecutor, criminal defense attorney; and family law practitioner. His community activities have included: Human Trafficking Taskforce; Collier County Domestic Violence Taskforce; Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team; volunteer judge for Ave Maria Law School Moot Court Competitions and mentor through the Young Lawyer’s Division of the Florida Bar. Nieman says “As a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney,” he “has the necessary experience in each of these areas to serve successfully,” as well as a “demonstrated commitment to public service, ethics and the rule of law.” Nieman lists endorsements from Naples Vice Mayor Gary Price and former State Senator Garrett Richter, among others. 

Dominick Russo

Dominick Russo (russo4countyjudge.com) is a criminal defense attorney in Naples (Dominick Russo, P.A.). He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1998; Bar profile here, Disclosure Statement here. A graduate of Naples High School, he attended Middlebury College, then taught public school in South Los Angeles for five years before attending Loyola Law School (Los Angeles) and returning to Naples. He has spent his legal career representing people in Collier County, first as an attorney with the Office of the Public Defender, and since 2001, in private practice. He is fluent in Spanish. According to his Facebook page, he is the only candidate for Collier County Judge who earned his way on the ballot by getting petitions signed by 2,008 registered voters from Collier County. The others paid a $5,520.80 qualifying fee. His volunteer activities have included service as a judge with Collier County’s Teen Court diversion program and in the Collier County Bar Association’s High School Mock Trial competition; he also volunteers with the Naples Cat Alliance, a a no-kill, free-roaming cat shelter. Rosso says he would be a good county judge because his legal experience has focused in the types of cases a county judge would hear (misdemeanor criminal cases, landlord-tenant cases, small claims, and motions to seal or expunge misdemeanor criminal cases), and because he has 16+ years running his own small business. His website lists no endorsements. 

The money – County Judge Candidates

The Money – County Judge Candidates

In addition to noting the differences among the candidates, I found these findings interesting in my review of individual contributions on the Collier Supervisor of Elections website

  • James Moon received $1,000 from Sheri Hutchison, spouse of Naples City Councilman Terry Hutchison, and $100 from Naples City Councilwoman Linda Penniman.
  • Michael Nieman received over 95 percent of his contributions from attorneys/lawyers.
  • Dominick Russo received $685 in-kind in website advertising from Larry’s Lunchbox.

The candidates – Circuit Judge

There are two candidates for circuit judge: James Wesley Chandler and John Owen McGowan. Both completed the Florida Bar’s “Judicial Candidate Voluntary Self-Disclosure Statement.  

James W. Chandler

James Wesley Chandler (no campaign website or Facebook Page) is an attorney specializing in criminal, juvenile and family law (Law Office of James W. Chandler, P.A.). He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2004; BAR profile here, Disclosure Statement here. He has a BS from West Virginia University and a JD from University of Denver, College of Law. Before beginning his own law practice, he spent two years as attorney/partner with Agoston & Chandler, P.A. , two years as associate attorney with Law Offices of David T. Agoston, P.A., and three years as an Assistant State Attorney. Asked why he believes he would be a good judge, Chandler wrote, “I am not running to fulfill a dream, etc. I am running because I was asked to run because I would make a good judge, honest and fair.” (sic) His volunteer activities have included Ave Maria Board of Visitors Mentor Program; Collier County Teen Court; Collier County High School Mock Trial Competition; Ave Maria School of Law Moot Court Competition; and president of a local Condo Association. I could find no endorsements. 

John O. McGowan

John Owen McGowan (mcgowan4judge.com) is an attorney in private practice specializing in Criminal and Civil litigation (John O. McGowan & Associates, P.A., via McGowan & Clarke). In addition, he has worked with the State of Florida’s Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, Second District for the past 10 years, providing criminal legal representation to indigent clients throughout Southwest Florida. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1993; Bar profile here, Disclosure Statement here. He has a BA (with honors) from Eckerd College and a JD from Western Michigan Cooley Law School (cum laude). McGowan served (2006 – 2018) as an elected North Naples Fire Commissioner and as District Liaison between the North Naples and the City of Naples Fire Departments. He says he is “committed to providing excellence in service at the most efficient cost to the taxpayers,” and supports consolidation of fire districts throughout the County. His volunteer activities have included Muscular Dystrophy Association; Drug Free Collier; Cancer Alliance of Naples; Safe and Healthy Children’s Coalition; Stepwise Collier; Angela’s Angels. According to a postcard from his campaign and/or his Facebook Page, McGowan has been endorsed by State Attorney Stephen Russell, Naples Mayor Bill Barnett, Naples City Councilmen Reg Buxton and Terry Hutchison, and Public Defender for the 20th Judicial Circuit Kathleen A. Smith; see members of his Election Campaign for more. 

The money – Circuit Judge Candidates

The Money – Circuit Judge Candidates
  • James Wesley Chandler received 85 percent of his monetary contributions from attorneys, including 25 contributions of $1,000 each. In addition, among his first contributions are seven $1,000 checks from contributors associated with FTE Networks, Inc., a publicly-traded “global network infrastructure solutions provider” headquartered in Naples, FL, with offices throughout the U.S. and Europe.
  • John Owen McGowan received 71 percent of his monetary contributions from attorneys, including 13 contributions of $1,000 each; 7 percent is from firefighters and related. Of note is $1,000 from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, $500 from Collier County EMS Medical Director Robert Tober, and $250 from Naples City Councilman Terry Hutchison.

Things to consider

 These are some things I will be considering in deciding how I will vote in these two judicial races: 

  • Does the candidate have a website and/or a campaign Facebook Page to introduce himself to voters? Does it clearly disclose his education and work history, community service and volunteer activities, and endorsements by well-respected community members?
  • Has the candidate made a convincing case for why he wants to be a judge, and why he would be a good judge and/or is the best candidate?
  • Did the candidate complete the Florida Bar’s Voluntary Disclosure Statement?
  • What impression can I draw from a review of the candidate’s sources and uses of campaign funds and the candidate amount he loaned to his own campaign?
  • What does all the above tell me about the candidate’s personal values and beliefs, and which candidate do I think would make the “best” judge given the nature of the cases that will come before him?

In closing

 This the final post in my GET READY TO VOTE series for the races and candidates that will be on Collier voters’ August Primary ballot. You can review the posts you missed (see Archive) as you consider your own ballots choices. Be sure to follow my Sparker’s Soapbox Facebook Page for day-to-day election news updates. My next posts will be my regular Month in Review of State and Local News, coming next week.

CorrectionI originally published on 7/28/18 that James Moon received $5,500 from Naples City Councilman Terry Hutchison’s Campaign Fund and $2,250 from Sheri and Terry Hutchison. Both amounts were in error, and resulted from my confusion about filings by the Moon campaign and its refund of amounts it initially received. The net result of the seven reported transactions is that Moon received one contribution of $1,000 from Sheri Hutchison and no contributions from Terry Hutchison or his Campaign Fund. I corrected the post online on 7/30/18, and thank Mr. Moon for bringing the error to my attention. 

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