Lawyer mounts campaign to unseat judge. She already has made history

Judge Brian Iten and Maria Ruhl.
Judge Brian Iten and Maria Ruhl. ttompkins@bradenton.com

It's been 12 years since someone ran against a sitting judge in the 12th Judicial Circuit.

That streak will be broken this fall when Bradenton defense attorney Maria Ruhl challenges Judge Brian Iten for a seat on the local bench.

The last time someone opposed a sitting judge in the 12th Judicial Circuit, which is comprised of Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, was in 2006 when defense attorney Susan Hartmann Swartz unsuccessfuly ran against Circuit Judge Lee Haworth.

Since then, elections for seats on the 12th Judicial Circuit Court bench have only occurred when a sitting chose not to run again. More and more, however, judges are choosing to retire or resign their elective position before the end of their terms so that the governor can appoint their successor.

"Our judges are supposed to be elected and I have realized that most people don't know that," Ruhl said.

Maria Ruhl, Bradenton attorney, is running for judge in the 12th Judicial Circuit. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

Besides being a career goal, Ruhl said she decided to run after realizing how long it had been since a sitting judge had been opposed in an election.

The defense attorney feels she picked a worthy opponent in Iten.

"I feel this election is less about me and more about the people," Ruhl said. "I want the voters to realize that they are the ones that choose who belongs on that bench."

Maria Ruhl, Bradenton attorney, is running for judge in the 12th Judicial Circuit.

Iten, a former assistant state attorney, welcomes the challenge and the chance for voters to affirm Gov. Rick Scott's appointment.

"It's the process we have," Iten said.

Before he was appointed, Iten said he was vetted by the 12th Judicial Nominating Commission and Scott's staff. During the process, he said he benefited from discussions with other judges.

The best advice, he said,. came from now Senior Circuit Judge Janette Dunnigan.

"When you are in court, people who are there before you, for them this event is likely the biggest thing they have going on in their lives, whether they are a victim, accused or they're a plaintiff or defendant in a suit," Iten recalled Dunnigan telling him. "Pretty likely, it's the biggest thing going on in their lives. So you have to remember that, and treat people accordingly."

It's advice he uses daily.

Judge Brian Iten is going up against a challenger for his seat, the first time a sitting judge has gone against another candidate in years.

"I didn't get appointed because of who I knew or the money I had in the bank," Iten said. "I am the first in my family to go to college. It's not like I am fourth-generation country club. I grew up working in a car lot, cutting grass in a drainage ditch and changing out spark plugs and putting in starters and alternators."

Judge Brian Iten in his chambers at the Manatee County Judicial Center Thursday. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

Iten, who grew up in Tarpon Springs, worked in his father's car lot in Clearwater. Now at 50 years old, Iten feels his life experiences, including almost a quarter century practicing law, have prepared him to serve as a judge, he said.

Ruhl, 40, immigrated from Venezuela when she was 3 years old, she said, and was raised in Broward County.

"I grew up the youngest of seven girls. We were very hardworking. I was always the mediator in the family," Ruhl said. "I believe everything in my life has contributed to where I am today. I work very hard for everything I have, for where I have gotten to. I know the value of hard work and I understand people. I can empathize. I can see the human component. I don't think that can be lost."

As an attorney, Ruhl said she has handled criminal and civil cases. Her experience as a small business owner, running her own law practice, is also an asset that would help her on the bench, she said.

As of June 22, Iten has raised $34,920 for his campaign, and Ruhl has raised $29,075.. Of those contributions, Iten has loaned his campaign $18,000 and Ruhl has given her campaign $16,900.

Judges are often criticized when a defendant is sentenced under a plea deal negotiated by a prosecutor and defense attorney. But judges have the final say.

"The judge is going to hand down the sentence agreed upon or fits," Ruhl said. "I would be fair and impartial to whatever case is in front of me."

Iten said attorneys will always know more about the case than the judge.

"Unless it is something that shocks the conscience, I am not in a position to disregard that," Iten said. "That being said, every defendant that's before me is an individual. I can't create a policy, I always do X in this type of case."

Despite criticisms that he is prosecuting from the bench and having to recuse himself from too many cases, Iten said he feels his supporters, which include dozens of defense attorneys, speak to his ability to be a fair and impartial judge.

"Perception is not always reality," Iten said.

In 2017, Iten recused himself from 62 cases assigned to his court. According to the court spokesman Dennis Menendez, the majority of those cases involved two attorneys, Charles Britt and Peter Lombardo.

Menendez spoke on behalf of Chief Judge Charles Williams regarding recusals and judicial assignments.

In Britt's cases, Iten had recused himself, because it was rumored that Britt was considering running against Iten, according to Menendez. Ultimately, Britt decided against a run, eliminating a potential conflict.

In Lombardo's cases, Iten felt recusals were appropriate based on circumstances from before he was a judge, Menendez said.