14 Miami-Dade judicial candidates qualify for county, circuit court races

In every election, judicial races get short shrift. They are the least studied, the least written about, the least talked about. Voters often don’t even know who they are putting on the bench, making decisions based on whether the names reflect their own ethnicity, or along gender lines.

It certainly doesn’t help that judges, in order to keep the perception of being unbiased, are not allowed to campaign on ideas or positions. So, it basically becomes a popularity contest, about whose name has more rec.

But these races are super important. Sure, our state and municipal electeds pass laws that affect us, but judges are the ones who interpret that legislation and make the ultimate decision on it. A judge was to decide whether the recall of Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo was valid. A judge chided Coral Gables electeds for approving a settlement for the construction of a WaWa without going through a public process. A judge dismissed former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi‘s lawsuit against the town to recover his exorbitant legal fees.

A judge can — and has — thrown out redistricting maps.

Judges are important. We ought to pay more attention.

Read related: Miami-Dade judge slams Coral Gables on WaWa’s secret approval process

Qualification for judicial candidates in both Miami-Dade County and Circuit courts ended Friday with most incumbent judges safe from any challenge. Thirty are automatically re-elected. At county court, sometimes called “the people’s court,” judges deal with mostly minor criminal (misdemeanor) and civil cases. In circuit court, the highest state trial courts in Florida, major criminal (felony), civil, family, juvenile and probate matters are heard.

In Miami-Dade County Group 7, Judge Edward Newman is retiring and Marcus R. Bach Armas, the senior attorney and lobbyist with the Miami Dolphins, was the only candidate who qualified so he is automatically elected. Bach was instrumental in turning the Hard Rock Stadium into a COVID-19 testing and vaccine center. His net worth is listed $3.7 million, according to the financial disclosure forms he filed when he qualified. That includes his million dollar apartment on Key Biscayne.

Ladra guesses he can afford to take a salary cut from $190,600 for a judge’s salary, which is about $156,000.

At the county court, there are only three competitive races.

In Group 5, former State Rep. and School Board Member Renier Diaz de la Portilla is challenging Judge Fred Seraphin. In Group 19, attorney Lissette De La Rosa has challenged Judge Jeffrey Kolokoff and in Group 42, Alicia Garcia Proviolos has challenged Scott Janowitz.

Has anyone noticed the trend? Three Hispanics have challenged three non-Hispanics in countywide judicial races. It’s the same thing at the 11th Circuit Court, where three of the four contests are a Hispanic challenging a non-Hispanic, including one candidate who apparently just Latinized her name specifically for the race.

Without any further ado, here are the opening primers:

County, Group 5: Fred Seraphin vs Renier Diaz de la Portilla

In Group 5, Seraphin made Miami-Dade history by becoming the county’s first Haitian-American judge when he was appointed to the bench in 2001 by then Gov. Jeb Bush. He ran unopposed both in 2004 and 2010. In 2016, he barely beat Milena Abreu with 50.16 to 49.84%. And Abreu had less than $20,000 in her campaign account compared to his $135,000.

According to the financial disclosure, Seraphin has a net worth of just over $306,000 and according to his campaign reports, he has loaned himself just over $7,000. He started late and has a lot of catching up to do if he wants to defend his bench against Diaz de la Portilla.

Read related: Renier Diaz de la Portilla wants to run for Miami-Dade County judge — again

Diaz de la Portilla has been a member of The Florida Bar for 14 years. He was on the school board for two years. He then ran for Florida house in a special election in 2000 and won the seat that had been occupied by his brother, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, now a city of Miami commissioner. He served two years and got booted out by JC Planas in the 2002 primary. He returned to the School Board in 2006 and served until 2012, when he ran for state house again, losing to Manny Diaz, Jr. In 2014, he ran for judge and lost to Veronica Diaz (57-43%) and in 2020 he ran for Miami-Dade Commission and lost against Eileen Higgins (53-47%).

In between, he spent a short time in the public defender’s office, representing wife beaters, but has mostly worked for himself, specializing in mediation and criminal defense. He reported his net worth at $91,666. Yes, we noticed the 666. He also reported owing $203,700 in student loans.

County, Group 19: Jeffrey Kolokoff vs Lissette de la Rosa

Kolokoff was appointed to the bench by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2020. This will be his first election. He has been a member of the Florida Bar for 15 years and was once a Miami-Dade assistant state attorney who prosecuted primarily complex white collar and fraud cases, including RICO, mortgage fraud, money laundering and related crimes. He also handled cases involving narcotics trafficking, domestic violence, armed robbery, home invasion and other violent crimes as well as DUIs. He then went to work for Beighley, Myrick, Udell & Lynn, where he has experience in civil and commercial litigation, criminal defense, insurance defense, and real estate litigation. Kolokoff is also a skilled fraud investigator and Certified Fraud Examiner.

He now presides over the Mental Health Problem Solving Court and Criminal Court. He has raised more than $365,000, but most of that ($325K) is a loan to himself, including $250K he injected into his account recently. He may be wanting to intimidate his opponent or scare her away before qualifying. He can afford it. He reported a net worth of almost $2.2 million.

De La Rosa has been a member of the Florida Bar for 20 years. She has worked for insurance companies and against insurance companies and is currently working at Heritage Property and Casualty in Broward. She raised $56,135 since February.

The mother of two is also a member of the Cuban American Bar Association and works on the Miami Bridge Gala to benefit local homeless youth.

County, Group 42: Scott Janowitz vs Alicia Garcia Priovolos      

Janowitz was also appointed by DeSantis in 2020, on the same day as Kolokoff. He has been a member of the Florida Bar for 16 years. He has raised almost $20,000 and only loaned himself $1,000 — so far. Janowitz reported a net worth of $425,000. Prior to his appointment to the bench, he was a Broward prosecutor for three years (2006-2009) and then has worked at three law firms, including his own from 201f5 to 2019. He is a Ransom Everglades High alumnus, class of ’96.

Read related: Miami whistleblower lawsuit vs. Joe Carollo goes to mediation, June trial

Priovolos has been a prosecutor for 16 years — the whole time she’s been a member of the Florida Bar — and is now the director of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Human Trafficking Unit, where she is paid $95,000 a year. She has a net worth of $1.8 million according to her disclosure and has raised almost $112,000, including $50,000 of her own money.

She has supervised all the human trafficking prosecutions in the office since 2018 and she leads a task force which investigates human trafficking throughout the county, working with state and federal law enforcement agencies, The Women’s Fund and the Super Bowl Host Committee to recover victims of human trafficking. She also advocates for changes in legislation, and trains officers, fire rescue personnel, code enforcement officers, and other state and local professionals about human trafficking identification and investigations.

Supporters include Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and his sister, Olga Suarez Vieira, who las malas lenguas say is a better attorney.

Circuit Court, Group 3: Jean Lody vs Teressa Maria Cervera (Tylman)

Who is Teressa Maria Cervera? Folks might know her as Teressa Tylman, the name under which she has been practicing for 12 years. According to the Justice Building blog — thank you Captain Justice — she had been an active member of the Florida Bar since 2010 under the name Tylman. Until February of this year, when she changed her name and the email address from tessatylman@gmail to teressacervera@gmail. Up until this year, the registered agent on her law practice — Teressa Maria Tylman, P.A. — was also Tylman. She was Teressa Tylman when she worked at Fein and Meloni.

What’s more: She’s Tylman on her driver’s license and her voter’s registration.

It’s not illegal for her to take the name of her husband — Becker & Poliakoff attorney Adam Cervera — for an election. In fact, it’s smart. But it’s not entirely honest. And judicial candidates are held to a higher ethical standard.

Tylman, er, Cervera has not reported any contributions or loans yet, as she just filed her first documents last month. She reported her net worth as $525,625 in her disclosure, which also lists $175,000 in student loans.

Judge Lody Jean, 44, was appointed to the civil court by Gov. Rick Scott in 2018 and then was appointed by DeSantis in 2020 to the circuit court. She is the first Haitian-American woman to be appointed to each bench. Born in Port-au-Prince to Lebanese parents, Lody has worked with Legal Services of Greater Miami on the Haitian Citizenship Project, a program for individuals of primarily Haitian descent who needed assistance applying for naturalization. She has also worked with the public defender and the Broward State Attorney’s office. From 2004 to 2012 she was a Miami-Dade prosecutor and Felony Division chief.

Jean is a past director of the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce of Florida and the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center and is the immediate past president of the Haitian Lawyers Association. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber and Dori Morales, wife of Miami-Dade Chief Operating officer Jimmy Morales, are among the hosts of an upcoming fundraiser.

Jean has raised $161,000, including $50,000 loaned to herself. She reported her net worth as $578,500.

Circuit Court, Group 20: Robert Watson vs Brenda Guerrero

Brenda Guerrero didn’t change her name — she just dropped part of it. All her professional career, it seems, she has been known as Brenda Gitchev Guerrero, but that just complicates things on the ballot, right? A member of the Florida Bar for 17 years, she spent several years as a Miami-Dade assistant state attorney in the child support enforcement division. She was also an associate attorney practicing family law at Schweitzer-Ramras & Diaz until she opened her own firm in 2017.

She is a member of the Miami-Dade Bar Association and vice president of the Dominican American Bar Association. She also volunteers for the county’s Teen Court Program.

Read related: Miami assistant city attorney Veronica Diaz wants to be judge

Guerrero has raised $27,000, of which $10K is a loan to herself. She reported her net worth at $186,300.

Watson was appointed to the bench by DeSantis in 2019. Before that he was an attorney with Kobre & Kim, and before that he was a federal prosecutor with the Southern District of Florida’s U.S. Attorney’s office. He spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Chile and then taught elementary school in Los Angeles in the late 90s.

Judge Watson, who reported his net worth at $1 million, has raised $160,000, including a $50,0000 loan to himself. He had his best fundraising month in March with almost $39,000 raised.

Circuit Court, Group 34: Mark Blumstein vs Ariel Rodriguez

Blumstein was first elected in 2016. He started his legal career as an attorney in the United States Navy, Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), where he served for more than 20 years. He has criminal, civil, family, probate and international law experience. Before becoming a judge, he had his own law firm since 2008 and he’s been a member of the Florida Bar since 1996. In addition to English and Spanish, he speaks Italian.

Judge Blumstein has loaned himself $60,000 and raised another $100K for a total of $160,000 in his campaign fund. He, too, had his best month in March, with $38,350 raised. He reported a net worth of almost $2.9 million, more than $2 million of which is in real estate.

Rodriguez is a trial attorney in the office of the U.S. Trustee at the Department of Justice. He has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1998. A former law clerk to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen S. Mitchell and attorney in private practice, his experience ranges from trial to appellate court practice. He is a graduate of Monsignor Edward Pace High School, Class of ’90. Rodriguez is a referee for college and high school football and a graduate of the Citizens Police Academy of the City of Doral and Miami-Dade Police. He has served as a Guardian ad Litem in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, and a guest lecturer for the Cuban American Bar Association.

Rodriguez has raised $38,500, including $4,800 of his own money. He reported his net worth at $1.6 million.

Circuit Court, Group 52: Oscar Rodriguez-Fonts vs Jason Bloch

This is the only race where a Hispanic incumbent is being challenged by a non Hispanic.

Rodriguez-Fonts was first elected in 2016 in a very narrow victory on a runoff after running unsuccessfully two years prior. After graduating from Florida State University with a political science in 1986 he worked as an aide to former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart until he went to law school, graduating in 1999. He has been a member of The Florida Bar since 2000. He is also a founding partner in the law firm Alvarez Rodriguez-Fonts.

A member of the Cuban American Bar Association, Rodriguez has served in various civic and community organizations, including the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana, the City of Miami Code Enforcement Board, the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Redemption Project, and the Florida Bar Grievance Committee, where he served as a past Chair.

Rodriguez-Fonts has raised just over $77,000 — without lending himself a dime so far. Among his contributors is former Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. He listed his net worth as $24,000 and has $176,000 in student loans, his largest liability.

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Bloch wants to come back to the bench. He was appointed by Scott in 2014 and then lost his first election to Marcia del Rey in 2016. For 20 years prior to that, from 1994 — when he first became a member of the Florida Bar — to 2014, he worked as a Miami-Dade assistant county attorney.

He doesn’t have any contributions reported yet because he only qualified at the very last minute — like he was figuring out who to target. He did report his net worth to be above $72 million, which begs the question: Why on Earth isn’t he just making miracles and enjoying his life?

So that’s the basic breakdown of the seven races. Because they are all head to head, there will be no runoffs and our judges will be decided by Aug. 23. Political Cortadito will try to cover the judicial races more closely this year. If you know something that Ladra ought to dig into, please feel free to send me a tip to edevalle@gmail.com.

And remember to vote.