To the surprise of few legal insiders, three attorneys with ties to the Republican Party or Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday were appointed by the governor to fill vacancies on the Palm Beach County Circuit Court bench.
Wellington Councilman Howard Coates Jr., longtime county prosecutor Kirk Volker and South Florida Water Management District attorney Edward Artau were chosen over 12 others who were recommended by a local nominating commission.
While not questioning the legal chops of any of the three who will take office in January, some attorneys said they were disappointed that it appears Scott once again let political connections guide the selection process.
“I don’t think any one of the three people are unqualified,” said attorney Gerald Richman, who has represented Democrats, including failed 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, in various election fights. “But I think it is true that those who have strong Republican credentials are going to have an advantage under this governor.”
Artau, 50, a former precinct chairman for the local Republican Party who worked for the election of George W. Bush, was turned down in his 2002 bid for a county judgeship despite letters of support from GOP leaders. In 1995, his role on a Judicial Nominating Commission sparked a gubernatorial investigation. It concluded that he shouldn’t have pushed for a candidate whose husband had arranged for his appointment to the panel.
Coates, 55, a failed state House candidate, has enjoyed financial support from the local GOP. Volker, 55, worked closely with Scott’s general counsel Peter Antonacci during the year Antonacci served as Palm Beach County state attorney. Antonacci interviewed all the candidates and made recommendations to Scott.
State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a Democrat, had high praise for Volker. “He’s an outstanding lawyer and a good person,” he said. “He will make an excellent judge.”
Aronberg said he has heard complaints that Scott tends to appoint Republicans to the bench. However, he said, he doubts it was a factor in Volker’s appointment. “I don’t even know Kirk Volker’s party affiliation. The fact that I don’t know should tell you how non-partisan he is,” he said.
Volker declined to discuss his party affiliation, saying only he was honored by the appointment. Artau dismissed the notion that his political affiliation won him favor.
“I was appointed based on my qualifications,” he said, adding that he hasn’t been involved in party activities in recent years. A Cuban-American, he will be the only Hispanic judge among the county’s circuit court jurists.
For his part, Coates said he is anxious to shed party politics. “The difference between the judgeship and the council is the judgeship is totally apolitical,” he said. “I like making decisions that I feel in my heart are the best decision regardless of the politics, so it’s part of my personality that suits me. I’m looking forward to the change.”
His appointment means Wellington council members will have 30 days to appoint someone to fill his term until the next election, which is in March 2016. Voters reelected Coates in March 2014 to a four-year term.
The selections come as Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath is struggling to find judges to handle cases due to the exodus of judges from the bench. The three will fill vacancies created by the retirements of longtime judges Timothy McCarthy and Ronald Alvarez and Judge Robin Rosenberg’s appointment to the federal bench. Applications also are being sought to replace Circuit Judge Edward Fine, who is retiring this month.
Three elected new judges — Jessica Ticktin, Jaimie Goodman and Samantha Schosberg Feuer — also will begin work in January.
Staff writer Kristen Clark contributed to this story.