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October 27, 2002

It's voters who will judge

From: Orlando Sentinel, FL
Oct. 27, 2002

By Anthony Colarossi | Sentinel Staff Writer

A pair of tight judicial races have four candidates with varied legal experiences facing off in the 9th Judicial Circuit.

Criminal defense attorney Mark Bender takes on former Orange County Judge Jim Henson in the Group 37 race. The seat was created by the state Legislature to accommodate tremendous growth in the judicial circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties.

Meanwhile, former prosecutor Alan Apte faces civil attorney Neal Pitts in the Group 21 race. That seat is opening up with the retirement of Circuit Judge W. Rogers Turner. Voters will choose the two new judges Nov. 5.

Both races are runoff elections because none of the candidates won a clear majority during the circuit judge primary on Sept. 10. Circuit judges are paid $133,250 a year and sit on the bench for six-year terms. They are trial judges who handle divorces, juvenile cases, felony criminal cases and large civil lawsuits. Both seats will be based in Orange County.

Ethics concerns recently surfaced in the Bender-Henson race. Last week Henson responded to inquiries about taking on a criminal case while he was still a sitting county judge in late 2000.

Henson, 53, has insisted he did nothing wrong in accepting the legal work in the days immediately before his term was up. Court records show he did not become the attorney of record on the case until he was off the bench.

"My ethics are above reproach," Henson said.

In fact, he has run a campaign focusing on personal ethics and integrity. Henson, a graduate of Nova University Law School in Fort Lauderdale, said he wants to return to the bench as a call to public service.

"Being a judge, to me, is not a prestige issue," Henson said. "I enjoy working with people that have problems. I can make a difference. I have some life experiences that some other judges have never had."

Henson is proud of his "cross-cultural" marriage -- his wife is Hispanic -- and said he has seen minorities and people of color treated unfairly by the court system.

"There's no color barrier as far as I'm concerned," he said. "I'll put you in jail whether you're black, white, red or yellow."

Henson has said he's a champion of the common man, but his direct and outspoken ways have sometimes drawn criticism. During his four-year term as Orange County court judge from 1997 to 2001, he consistently received low ratings from lawyers. The Central Florida Criminal Defense Attorneys Association gave him the lowest score of all county judges for his demeanor and next to last for his knowledge and diligence.

Henson has raised $64,863.08 for his campaign. The majority -- $58,868.80 -- was his own money.

Henson's opponent, Mark Bender, has been in private practice for 17 years, specializing in criminal defense. At one point he considered working for the Orlando Police Department after graduating from the University of Central Florida. But he ultimately went to law school, graduating from Ohio Northern University.

Bender, 44, said he has seen abuses by judges and mistreatment of the parties who appear before them.

"As a lawyer, you see things in court. You just cringe," Bender said. "I've seen judges treat people with the utmost disrespect. That is just wrong.

"You've got a job to do," he said, "and you're a public servant."

Bender agrees with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling placing death penalty decisions largely in the hands of jurors instead of judges.

"The judge is there to make sure the trial is fair," Bender said.

Bender has raised $79,845 in his race with about $16,200 of his own money.

In the Group 21 race, two well-financed candidates have raised a combined $423,121.

Alan Apte, 35, has raised $229,600 for his campaign, but personal loans make up the great majority. The former prosecutor has put more than $216,000 of his own money in the campaign.

This is Apte's second shot at an elected judicial seat. In 2000, he ran for Orange County judge against Wilfredo Martinez and lost.

Apte said he likes being a "referee" and the desire has led him to run again. A graduate of Nova University Law School, Apte has decided to take no campaign contributions from attorneys, their spouses or law firms.

"It's a conscious decision to have no question about any type of impropriety," Apte said.

But he has accepted the endorsements of Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary and Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar. Some have suggested those endorsements make it appear Apte is on the side of law enforcement, but Apte said he would bring a fair-minded approach to the bench.

"Being a judge is giving back to the community," Apte said. "It's being the conscience of the community."

Apte's opponent, Neal Pitts, has raised $193,521 for his campaign, but the total includes $151,809 of his own money.

Pitts, 48, is the son of a longtime prominent attorney and has overcome personal hardship to become a top-rated attorney among his peers.

Pitts lost his hearing at a young age, but went on to earn a law degree from Ohio Northern University College of Law and develop a successful private practice despite the disability. He made his way through law school reading lips.

After a cochlear implant in early 2000, Pitts regained his hearing.

But his practice, specializing in workers compensation claims, personal injuries and Social Security disability work, was well-developed before the procedure. He has been an attorney for 23 years.

"I never gave up, and I never stopped believing in myself," Pitts said.

He said that attitude won't change if he's elected.

"I want to work hard on the bench and make a difference in people's lives," he said.

Anthony Colarossi can be reached at or 407-420-6218.

Copyright © 2002, Orlando Sentinel