What was shaping up as a staid judicial election, pitting former county magistrate and prosecutor Sarah Willis against retired U.S. Army judge advocate Henry Quinn Johnson, is now one of the most closely watched races in Palm Beach County.
KNOW YOUR CANDIDATES: Complete guide to the Aug. 28 election
Political-watchers perked up when former State Attorney Michael McAuliffe announced he would enter the nonpartisan race in hopes of making a surprising comeback into public life.
Instead of butting heads with a well-connected candidate in another judicial race, McAuliffe switched course and filed papers to challenge Willis and Johnson in the Aug. 28 election to replace retiring Circuit Judge Catherine Brunson.
Changing course is nothing new for McAuliffe.
Eight months before his four-year term ended in 2012, he shocked the political and legal community by announcing he was stepping down as the county’s top prosecutor to accept a lucrative job as general counsel for billionaire Bill Koch’s Oxbow Carbon.
McAuliffe makes no apologies for his decision to leave office before his term was up. He also says voters shouldn’t worry that his interest in public service is fleeting or that his judicial career could end just as abruptly.
“It wasn’t that my heart wasn’t in it. I loved the job and I thought I was good at it,” he said. “Out of the blue I was offered a chance to go into the private sector in a leadership position that couldn’t be replicated in this community.”
The salary, the prestige, the globe trotting and the challenges of handling the far-flung legal affairs of the worldwide energy giant based in West Palm Beach was irresistible, he said. “It was literally an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he said.
Further, he said, since leaving Oxbow for unspecified reasons in 2016, he has mellowed. “Ten years ago I had a bit of spit and vinegar in me,” he said. “I’m now a more thoughtful version of myself. Running for a judgeship is a way to continue my relationship with the community.”
Johnson and Willis say that while McAuliffe has been rebuilding his life — writing a novel, mountain-climbing in the Himalayas and shuttling his two daughters to Duke University and his teenage son to boarding school in Andover, Ma., while deciding his next move — they were practicing law.
Johnson, 51, retired from the Army Reserves as a lieutenant colonel in 2016 after a decorated 27-year career that took him to conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan. For the last five years, he has worked for a Tampa-based real estate law firm that has offices in eight states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Representing banks and mortgage companies in foreclosure actions, he said he is in Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast courtrooms daily.
“It’s important for people with moral courage to serve as a judge,” said Johnson, who once worked as an assistant state attorney in Palm Beach and Pinellas counties. “I wanted to serve in a capacity where I serve as an example and make sure people feel they have received justice.”
Willis, 38, who was required to quit her four-year post as a county magistrate when she officially filed to run for circuit judge in May, said her work in what is known as a quasi-judicial position confirmed her longtime desire to be a judge.
“I love the courtroom,” said Willis, who worked as an assistant state attorney for five years followed by a three-year stint as an assistant statewide prosecutor for Florida’s attorney general. “I have spent my life in the courtroom. I find it very satisfying.”
She sought appointment to the bench in 2016 and was one of five people selected by a judicial nominating commission for appointment. Gov. Rick Scott selected one of the other candidates.
As a magistrate, Willis heard cases dealing with child support, paternity and whether people involuntarily committed for mental health or substance abuse problems needed further treatment. She sent her recommendations to circuit judges for final action.
The job required her to juggle heavy caseloads and deal with distraught people forced to navigate unfamiliar legal waters. “They come in agitated. They come in with a chip on their shoulder. If you listen to them and apply the law, they walk out with less of a chip. I try to make it a less intimidating and less painful experience,” she said of the lessons she learned as a magistrate.
Johnson said he, too, is used to handling hefty dockets. In his case, the task was complicated by the fact that he was often in combat zones.
When he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, he served as chief of military justice for the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force. That meant he was responsible for managing all court martial and administrative justice actions for more than 33,0000 soldiers as well as civilian contractors who worked with the military.
Because of troop movements, he said soldiers were often required to return to a combat zone to face charges. “That was unfortunate,” he said, adding that it was a motivation to move cases expeditiously.
He was awarded a Bronze Star for his service during the 2008 Afghanistan war and a Legion of Merit for his work as a judicial advocate. The awards underscore the leadership role in played in the military legal system — lessons that he said will serve him well as a judge.
While praising Johnson’s service, McAuliffe insists he is more qualified than either of his opponents because of the breadth of his experience.
Before being elected state attorney in 2008, he practiced for six years with his wife, Robin Rosenberg, a former circuit judge who now serves on the federal bench. He also worked at the West Palm Beach office of white-glove legal behemoth, Holland & Knight. He spent five years as an assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuting people accused of hate crimes, human trafficking, fraud and other felonies.
“I have a 360-degree view of the law,” he said of his 29 years of legal experience. “I’ve done so many different things.”
For the past year, he has been a partner in a law firm with attorney Martin Reeder, who also represents The Palm Beach Post. He said he rarely goes to court. Instead, he tries to keep clients out of the legal system. “You wouldn’t know about (my work) because I’ve been largely successful in my representation of clients who are targets of criminal investigations,” he said.
While he said he has handled more than 30 jury trials in his career, his last one was in 2011 when, as state attorney, he helped prosecute one of the men involved in a brazen daytime robbery and shooting at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Delray Beach. The man was handed nine life sentences.
In recent years, Johnson and Willis said they haven’t handled jury trials, either. Willis estimated she has handled nearly 90 jury trials in her 12-year career. Johnson, who has been practicing law since 1998, said he has been involved in more than 100 jury trials.
Both Willis and Johnson said they were surprised when McAuliffe entered their race after Boca Raton attorney Gregory Tendrich dropped out in April. McAuliffe said it didn’t make sense to stay in the other race with Scott Kerner, the brother of County Commissioner Dave Kerner and son of longtime Lake Worth cop Martin Kerner. People who wanted to support him, voiced frustration because they were supporting Kerner, he said.
“One takes note of that type of feedback,” McAuliffe said. Further, he said, he switched seats in plenty of time so others could enter the races or follow his lead.
Johnson said he chose to run for Brunson’s seat as a way to “recognize her service and honor her legacy.” During her lengthy legal career, Brunson has broken barriers for blacks and women.
Further, Johnson said, McAuliffe’s switch seems to be part of a pattern. “For someone like myself, who is really committed to public service and has been for 27 years, there doesn’t seem to be any serious commitment to anything,” he said.
But there is no doubt McAuliffe is serious about winning. He has already pumped $250,000 of his own money into the race for a post that pays $160,688 annually. He has raised another $92,525, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Johnson has loaned his campaign $13,400 and he has gotten $22,500 in donations. Willis has contributed $20,500 to her campaign and raised another $29,540.
To win, one of the three must capture more than 50 percent of the vote. If no one does, the top two vote-getters will face off in the Nov. 6 election.
Name: Henry Quinn Johnson
Personal: 51, of suburban Lake Worth; married to pediatrician Dr. Terrie Johnson; two children.
Education: Law degree, University of Florida; master’s in urban planning, Florida State University; bachelor’s in chemistry, University of South Carolina.
Professional: Litigation attorney, Albertelli Law, 2013-present; Solo practitioner, 2006-2013; Assistant Palm Beach County state attorney, 2004-2006; Assistant Pinellas County state attorney, 1998-2002. Assistant Florida attorney general, 2002-2004. Served 27 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves, working as a judge advocate general. Deployed to Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Key quote: “I am qualified, experienced and a leader ready to serve. I bring efficiency, fairness and equity to the judiciary, while providing diversity for the representation of all people of Palm Beach County.”
Name: Michael McAuliffe
Personal: 55, of West Palm Beach; married to U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg; three children.
Education: Law degree William and Mary Law School; bachelor’s of business administration, University of Texas at Austin.
Professional: Shareholder with Atherton, McAuliffe & Reeder, P.A.; general counsel Oxbow Carbon, 2012-2016; Palm Beach County State Attorney, 2008-2012; Partner in Rosenberg & McAuliffe, 2002-2008; Litigation partner, Holland & Knight, 1999-2002; Assistant U.S. attorney, 1994-1999; U.S. Department of Justice, 1989-93.
Key quote: “I seek a judgeship to be a strong example to my three children as someone who serves others, and makes a positive contribution to the community. I wish to help preserve the rule of law in our democracy and to protect the rights of the weak and the powerful to be heard on equal terms.”
Name: Sarah Willis
Personal: 38, of West Palm Beach; married to Al Willis; two children.
Education: Law degree, Florida State University; bachelor’s of fine arts, Florida Atlantic University.
Professional: Palm Beach County magistrate, 2014-2018; Associate attorney, Rudolph & Associates, 2014; Assistant statewide prosecutor, Florida Attorney General’s Office, 2011-2014; Assistant Palm Beach County State Attorney, 2006-2011.
Key quote: “When you’re in a courtroom every day, you realize what a difference a judge makes for every person involved. They set the tone. I genuinely love being in the courtroom. As a magistrate, I loved it. … You don’t know how someone’s going to behave until they’ve worn the robe and I’ve worn the robe.”