Election, scheduled for Aug. 28, is first contested race for a judge in the region in 12 years.
A contested election for Florida judges is a rarity. For instance: In the 2018 election cycle, 282 judges from all courts already took the bench unopposed.
In circuit courts statewide, 143 out of 177 judges had no opposition, according to the Florida Bar, which tracks judicial elections, called retention votes. Out of the 34 circuit court races, seven involve incumbent judges — the others are both new candidates, the Bar adds.
One of those seven contested elections is in the 12th Judicial Circuit, which covers Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. The election — the first contested judicial election in the 12th Circuit since 2006 — pits incumbent Judge Brian Iten, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2015, against the challenger, Bradenton attorney Maria Ruhl.
Circuit judges are elected for six-year terms, and the elections are nonpartisan. The judicial election is scheduled for Aug. 28, primary day. In recent interviews, both candidates touted their backgrounds and temperaments as key components in their campaigns.
Judge Brian Iten
• Personal background: Born in New Jersey, moved to Florida with his family when he was 8. Went to public schools in Pinellas County. Married with two children.
• Age: 50
• Legal background: Graduated Florida State University College of Law. Was an enforcement officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives before law school. Worked as a law clerk in Tallahassee and is an adjunct instructor at State College of Florida and the law enforcement academy at Manatee Technical College.
• Legal career: Iten was an assistant state attorney and prosecutor from 1994 to 2015, prior to the bench. Roles there included felony chief of special intake, which handled violent crimes and complex criminal cases.
• Notable case: Lead prosecutor in first-degree murder/death penalty case of Delmer Smith in 2012.
• Supporters: Includes State Attorney Ed Brodsky and former State Attorney Earl Moreland; Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight; Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells; former Manatee County Sheriffs W. Brad Steube and Charlie Wells; DeSoto County Sheriff James Potter and State Rep. Jim Boyd, R- Bradenton.
• Why are you passionate about being a judge? “I’m fascinated by the law. I’m a student of the law. I will eagerly await a review of an appellate court decision. My fellow judges even sometimes come to me for advice on the law.”
• Why should voters choose you for judge? “My wealth of experience. I’ve tried 141 cases as a criminal prosecutor. And as a judge I’ve done 47 trials and hundreds of motion hearings. I’ve shown that I’m proficient in the law during the last 25 years.”
Candidate Maria Ruhl
• Personal background: The youngest of seven sisters, Ruhl immigrated to the United States with her family from Venezuela when she was three years old, saying “we came with one suitcase.” She was raised mostly in Broward County. Married with three children.
• Age: 40
• Legal background: Law degree from St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami. Interned as a law clerk for a Federal Judge in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida.
• Legal career: Founded Ruhl Law P.A. in 2011; her husband, Rick Ruhl is also an attorney there. Firm has grown to 10 employees. Maria Ruhl handles criminal, family, immigration and personal injury cases. Has civil and criminal litigation experience.
• Notable cases: Defended a client in a Stand Your Ground case in 2010. Her client was one of the first clients in Saraosta to be granted immunity from prosecution under the self-defense Stand Your Ground law in 2010.
• Supporters: Includes Sarasota area developer Hugh Culverhouse and trial and criminal defense attorneys Peter Lombardo and Derek Byrd.
• Why are you passionate about becoming a judge? “I absolutely love the law. To be able to serve in a direct capacity and serve the public like that would be a dream.”
• Why should voters choose you for judge? “I understand different kinds of legal issues. I have a diverse background and understand what someone is going through (in court.) I think that would be an advantage on the bench. I will be fair and impartial and uphold the law.”