Special to South Florida Times
MIAMI — Angered by what they see as a decades-long pattern of black judges being singled out and defeated during re-election, some African-American lawyers and community activists decided to take a stand, rallying to support a long-serving incumbent in danger of being ousted from the bench.
Miami-Dade voters will have an opportunity on Aug. 14 to keep County Judge Teretha Lundy Thomas, who has served unopposed for almost 20 years. She is being challenged by trial lawyer John M. Rodriguez.
Thomas, who serves as an administrative judge, is the only black woman among 120 judges in the county and one of only nine African Americans on the bench in Miami-Dade.
“When I ran back in 1992, there was only one other African-American female judge at the time and now I am the only one,” Thomas said. “I ran because there was a need for diversity on the bench — and there still is.”
The Miami native and graduate of Miami Jackson High School in the Allapattah community of Miami, attended the University of Chicago and Brown University and studied law at the University of Miami.
Rodriguez previously applied to fill a judicial vacancy but he was rejected by the judicial nominating committee. He too graduated from UM’s law school but he has no experience as a judge.
Rodriguez is a former Hialeah police officer and assistant Miami-Dade County state attorney. For the past 18 years, he has worked in private practice in criminal defense, litigation and real estate.
Rodriguez did not return several phone calls seeking comment on his candidacy.
Attorney Reginald Clyne of Clyne and Associates is among lawyers who support Thomas’ re-election.
“Traditionally, incumbent judges do not draw opposition unless their performance has merited an attack. In the case of Judge Thomas, it is her race and gender that have subjected her to challenge,” Clyne said. “I feel she was targeted because it would be easy to phase her out since most African-American people don’t know about the election. And, with more Hispanic voters (in the county), it results in more Hispanic judges.”
African-American voters need to become educated about the campaign, Clyne said, adding he will continue fighting for diversity on the bench. “Residents of South Florida should celebrate our diversity and fight against people who try to tear apart the fabric of this community by dividing us along ethnic and cultural lines,” Clyne said.
Nydia Menendez, a former president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association and an attorney with the Menendez and Cuetos law firm, is also backing Thomas. “I wish minorities did not run against other minorities — and for a long time it was an unwritten rule. Just look at the numbers. Neither the bench nor the halls of power are representative of the population intended to be served,” she said.
H.T. Smith, who served as Miami-Dade’s first black assistant county attorney and has been practicing law for nearly 40 years, also opposes the move to unseat Thomas.
“The biggest problem now is that a few Cuban-American power brokers in the legal community work on the philosophy that ‘51 percent of the people deserve 100 percent of the spoils 100 percent of the time.’ This is just rank greed,” said Smith, a former chairman of the 11th Judicial Circuit’s nominating committee.
“Hispanic lawyers are challenging black and non-Hispanic white judges. There are so few black state court judges because most black lawyers do not have the financial ability to raise between $100,000 and $200,000 to run an effective judicial campaign,” Smith said.
“The judicial nominating process is skewed against blacks,” he said. “We have also had 13 years of Republican governors who desire to support other Republicans who helped them get elected.”
Other prominent African-American attorneys who support Thomas include Kertch Conze, Marlon Hill and Lynn Washington.
Several community leaders also support her, including former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Betty Ferguson, North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre, Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones and Congressional candidate Rudy Moise. They agreed to participate in fundraising events in support of Thomas, Clyne told South Florida Times.
More than 300 judges serve in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties combined. Miami-Dade has the most, including 43 county judges, of whom Thomas is one of five blacks; two others serve in the civil division and another two in the criminal division: Wendell Graham, Eric Hendon, Fred Seraphin and Rodney Smith.
Of 86 Miami-Dade circuit judges, five are black: Jerald Bagley, Daryl Trawick, Darrin Gayles, William Thomas and Orlando Prescott.
Mary Rudd Robinson, one of only two blacks among 31 county judges in Broward — the other is Ian Richards — also had to face an opponent. Broward has 36 circuit judges, of whom four are black: Ilona Holmes, Michael Robinson, Elijah Williams and Michael Usan.
Of Palm Beach County’s five black judges – Moses Baker and Catherine Brunson in Circuit Court; Reginald Corlew, Sheree Cunningham and Debra Moses Stephens in County Court – Baker is up for retention and running unopposed for re-election Nov. 6.
According to an informal survey by South Florida Times, members of black bar associations support Thomas and Clyne’s call to defend black judges and work toward getting more of them elected. However, as a rule, those groups do not endorse candidates in political races because of their non-profit status.
They include the Wilkie D. Ferguson Bar Association, the Miami-Dade group named for the late distinguished federal judge. Christina McKinnon, a member of that association.
McKinnon said “Black candidates need majority (Hispanic) voters combined with their voting base in Miami-Dade County and they need majority (white/Jewish) voters, in addition to the black voters, in Broward County. Low voter turnout for the August elections can prove to be detrimental to black candidates, as many in our base simply don't vote at that time.”