Indian River County voters will have the opportunity to choose new judicial officials in August as they consider candidates to replace retiring county and circuit court judges.
Six candidates are vying for two spots – the Hon. Robert Pegg’s seat on the circuit court bench, where serious felony cases are decided, and the Hon. Joe Wild’s seat in county court, which rules on traffic tickets, landlord/tenant disputes and other less serious matters.
Among the contenders for the two positions are an openly gay former prosecutor, a corporate lawyer turned public defender and a Haitian woman who was the first African-American judge ever to preside in the 19th Judicial Circuit.
This year’s county judge race has seen three times more funds raised than for any other county office, according to the Division of Elections’ online database. The primary election is Aug. 28 and already some $176,000 has been raised by the candidates competing for the judicial vacancy.
In contrast, the second-most-funded contest, the fight for the District 4 spot on the Indian River County School Board, has seen only $57,000 in contributions.
Leading the fundraising race is Nicole Menz, an openly gay Minnesota native who spent nearly nine years with the 19th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office in Vero Beach before starting her own private practice law firm, Menz & Battista.
There, she represents clients in a variety of areas including criminal defense, family law, bankruptcy and adoptions. Many of her mentors, she said, were county court judges.
County Court is the place where most citizens interact with the justice system, said the 49-year-old Menz. It’s where a seat belt violation can be disputed and issues between creditors and debtors are hashed out.
“It’s particularly important,” Menz said. “You really need to look at the qualifications of the people. Whoever is elected is likely to have this position for many years.”
Menz claims the support of most of the local bar associations and has received more than $128,000 in contributions. Besides practicing law, she acts as a hearing officer in St. Lucie County Traffic Court. She says what distinguishes her from the other candidates is this experience as an arbitrator and her time as both a prosecutor and a private attorney.
Among her competitors is Robyn Stone, a prosecutor who currently works for the 19th Judicial Circuit. Stone, a 39-year-old Vero Beach native and St. Ed’s alumnus, is the youngest of the candidate pool. The former school teacher said she returned to her hometown after law school to be an advocate for children.
Stone said she wanted to see those who were negligent and abusive prosecuted for their crimes. She worked her way up in the State Attorney’s Office, starting in county court and eventually trying felony cases.
She is now a supervisor in county court and helps mentor young prosecutors. Stone also serves on the mental health diversion team.
Kiernan Patrick Moylan, 48, of Indian River Shores is the third candidate running for county judge. The former corporate lawyer for JM Family Enterprises said he felt called to public service as his career grew.
He went to work for Bill McCollum, the former Florida Attorney General, before coming to Indian River County and serving as a public defender.
“I believe in protecting people’s rights,” he said. “I believe in the system and if you don’t have balance on both sides of the equation in a criminal courtroom, it doesn’t work.”
Police officer turned criminal defense attorney Bob Meadows, 60, shares Moylan’s desire for a fair system. The former Indian River County Sheriff’s Office detective said he put himself through law school while raising his children as single father. He is now in the running for Circuit Court judge.
Meadows says his work in law-enforcement and as a private defense attorney afford him a unique perspective in the courtroom. “I know how the grandmother feels crying for mercy. I can see it from a paradigm unlike any other.”
Meadows recalled a time he had to tell the parents of a 17-year-old girl their daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. He then had to take the driver of the vehicle to jail and help prosecutors build their case.
“Those kind of experiences, you can’t buy,” said Meadows. “That experience you can’t get from sitting at a table.”
Meadows is up against Stuart-based attorney Lou Larsen and former St. Lucie County Judge Nirlaine Smartt for a spot on the Circuit bench, where life and death decisions are made.
Criminal felonies and high-stakes civil actions are arbitrated in Circuit Court. The 19th Judicial Circuit covers Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties.
Larsen, 53, said he aspired to be a judge while he was still attending law school. A recent near-fatal bike accident pushed him to take the step and run for election now. “I almost died. I am just so lucky that I’m alive, that I can walk and that I’m not brain damaged,” he said.
The attorney has spent more than 26 years in private practice, working criminal defense, probate and personal injury cases. His colleagues call him the “Swiss army knife of the office” due to the breadth of his experience, he said.
The attorney started elawyer.com and would like to see technology improve efficiencies and access in the court system. “The world is changing so fast and in so many ways,” he said. “I will always be open to listening to suggestions of anything that can improve the lives of our citizens.”
Larsen was hit by a vehicle while riding along A1A. The driver has since been criminally charged with being under the influence of drugs or alcohol and leaving the scene of the accident.
The experience, Larsen said, not only gave him a new lease on life, but also showed him what it is like to be a victim. He asked prosecutors to take his case to trial.
“I trust the system. I believe in the system. I want to see it play out.”
Smartt, 51, is the only one of the Circuit Court candidates who has sat on the bench before.
She was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott as a St. Lucie County judge in 2015, making her the first African-American to hold that position in the circuit. She was unseated less than a year later after a Fort Pierce attorney defeated her in an election.
The longtime prosecutor and one-time pharmaceutical sales rep said she isn’t ready to put the gavel down. “When I win this election, I will make history again,” Smartt said. “It’s important for the bench to reflect the community it serves. I see the need for a person like myself to do this.”
Smartt came to the United States from Haiti when she was 4 years old. She was enrolled in Head Start, a public early childhood education program for low-income kids and their families. It was there she learned English.
“I’ve had to work hard to get to where I am. Nothing was ever given to me,” said Smartt, who returned to her job as an Assistant State Attorney after losing the election. She is now a criminal felony prosecutor in St. Lucie County, investigating and prosecuting major crimes.
“I’ve always felt this need to serve the community in this capacity. I always try to help administer justice, to uphold the constitution,” she said. “To me, being a judge is the epitome of being an attorney. It’s the highest form of service.”
More information about the upcoming elections and candidates is at www.voteindianriver.com.