3 judges face challengers in Pinellas primary

MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE/Tampa Bay Times/TNS
·6 min read

Two Pinellas-Pasco Circuit judges and a Pinellas County judge are facing challengers in the Aug. 23 primary.

Additionally, three attorneys are vying for an open seat on the bench in county court.

County judges handle cases such as misdemeanors, ordinance and traffic violations and civil matters of $15,000 or less. Circuit judges oversee criminal and civil matters not handled by county courts. The majority of jury trials take place in circuit court.

Attorney Nick Fiorentino, 43, is challenging incumbent Cynthia Newton, 55, in the 6th Judicial Circuit, Group 22, race.

Fiorentino is a partner at Ciarciaglino, Gell & Fiorentino, P.A. and represents members of two police unions. He also handles cases in family and criminal law, personal injury and probate/estates and has been an attorney for 19 years.

“In the last few years, it’s something that I felt that I was qualified for based on my legal experience and my life experience,” Fiorentino said, adding that he had waited to run until his children were older.

Newton was elected to the bench in 2004. She currently serves in the civil division, but has also worked in the criminal and family divisions. Newton pointed to her experience handling jury trials, both as a judge and previously an assistant public defender, as proof of her qualifications for the position. According to her Florida Bar voluntary disclosure statement, she has presided over more than 100 jury trials.

“There’s not one thing you can do as a lawyer as a substitute for the experience you get having a jury trial,” she said.

In the 6th Judicial Circuit Group 27 race, family law attorney Scott Finelli, 50, is challenging incumbent Keith Meyer, 47, who is currently a judge in the civil division.

Finelli said he has had his eyes set on a judicial position for many years.

“It’s been something that since I became a lawyer was always sort of a distant goal that I wanted to achieve,” he said.

Meyer was first elected to the bench in 2010 after roughly a decade spent as a prosecutor and in private practice, where he handled both criminal and civil cases.

Meyer said he’s running for reelection because he enjoys his job and views it as an important form of public service.

“I love what I do, and I think it’s very important,” Meyer said. “I’m very interested in my community.”

As a judge, Meyer has served in the civil, criminal and family divisions, presiding over more than 70 jury trials and more than 1,000 bench trials — trials that only involve a judge and no jury. Prior to his time as a judge, Meyer estimates he tried “at least” 30 jury trials and more than 1,000 bench trials.

Finelli was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2010 after a career as a teacher. He has worked as a legal advocate on behalf of domestic violence victims and now practices family law. He also has worked as a Guardian ad Litem, a court-appointed advocate representing children’s interests in legal proceedings.

He tried six bench trials, but has not participated in any jury trials as an attorney, according to his Florida Bar judicial candidate voluntary self-disclosure statement.

Finelli said that’s because it’s rare for family law matters to go to trial.

“The same rules of evidence apply in a hearing as it does in a trial,” he said.

Pinellas County Judge Kathleen Hessinger, 57, is also facing a challenge from attorney Ken Afienko, 60, in the Group 13 race.

Hessinger has been a judge since 2005. Prior to that, she handled civil cases and worked as a prosecutor.

In her current position, Hessinger handles criminal cases. She said she enjoys the more individualized nature of county courts.

“I have an opportunity to work with holding people accountable, but also working with them to improve their situation,” she said.

Afienko handles litigation matters for the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 43, and also works in personal injury, family law, landlord/tenant law and employment law. Afienko is also a professor at St. Petersburg College and a reserve police officer in Kenneth City.

“I don’t have any experience as a judge, but I’ve certainly been in and out of court my whole life,” he said. “So I’m very familiar with the system, so to speak.”

Three candidates are vying for a spot on the bench in the Pinellas County Group 1 race. They are civil attorney and former prosecutor Della Cope, public defender David Moran and civil attorney Megan Roach.

Cope, 43, currently works at Cope, Zebro & Crawford, P.L. where she represents plaintiffs in civil matters and also works with government and law enforcement clients such as the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Prior to her time at the law firm, Cope worked as an attorney at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, defending the agency in lawsuits. She also spent 10 years as a prosecutor in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office.

Young lawyers fresh out of law school often start their careers handling cases in county court. Cope said if elected, she hopes to mentor these attorneys, just as she looked to judges for guidance in the early days of her career. She also noted she would be managing a courtroom with a backlog of cases, as well as defendants who may be facing criminal charges or a lawsuit for the first time.

“I think it really takes a lot of experience with a high caseload to know how to balance that — give everyone the time that they deserve while still maintaining that efficiency,” Cope said.

Moran, 44, has been an assistant public defender for 14 years. He took a brief hiatus from the Public Defender’s Office from 2008 to 2011, when he worked in a private practice handling criminal defense cases, landlord/tenant matters, family law cases and some small claims.

“I think we always need a balance of perspectives, a balance of judges that have actually represented individuals, people, not corporations, not insurance companies and not always just the state,” he said.

Roach, 34, is a civil attorney at Zinober, Diana, & Monteverde P.A. where she works in casualty and property defense, and also handles general liability and commercial litigation matters. Roach has participated in five jury trials and more than 200 bench trials, according to her Florida Bar disclosure statement.

Roach said she is running because she wants to serve her community and she hopes to bring a different background to the bench than judges coming from a prosecutorial or public defender background.

“I think that my statewide litigation experience really brings something important that will benefit Pinellas County,” she said.