The local judge who this week said he fell asleep while presiding over his court June 12 due to an Ambien reaction told voters Friday he has more legal experience than his two opponents put together.
"I'm asking to be rehired for another term because I believe in our children," said Judge Tegan Slaton at Hometown PAC's candidate meet-and-greet Friday in Key West. "I'm there to protect our children, and I've been there for our children. On Aug. 26, vote for experience, compassion and knowledge."
Slaton, who is seeking a second six-year term Aug. 26, didn't mention the Ambien incident, which he attributed to health problems that aren't serious enough to threaten his fitness for the bench or his life.
His opponents, attorneys Jack Bridges and Bonnie Helms, didn't bring it up either during the few minutes they were allotted to speak at the political event, held at The Studios of Key West, though each spoke of a judge's need to have integrity.
But Helms was interrupted by a heckler as she ticked off the qualities a judge should have.
"You want someone who has been in the business of practicing law in this very court for 20-plus years," Helms said.
"And not drunk!" a man called out from a seat close to the stage.
It was Stephen Freer, 61, who state officials earlier this year accused of purposely abandoning the 81-foot tugboat Tilly two miles southwest of Key West, where it sank around Feb. 28.
Removing the sunken Tilly from the sea floor could cost at least $500,000, state and local leaders say.
Todd German, who emceed the event, immediately and sternly shut down Freer, threatening to throw him out of the building himself if need be. Sheldon Davidson, who spent years as a special prosecutor for the Justice Department, walked over to Freer and said something inaudible.
Freer wasn't tossed out, and he marked the only uncomfortable outburst of the evening.
The interruption didn't faze Helms, who has made a career of family law, including child support enforcement work. She said bringing families into court shouldn't be the first solution by a system that has options.
"There are many other avenues of dispute resolution that keep families away from the courtroom," Helms said.
Bridges, who served on the Mosquito Control District Board for the past four years, suggested an attorney's temperament was an indicator of a good judge, along with experience.
"Experience isn't all it's about, or we could just find the oldest lawyer in town and make him the judge," Bridges said. "It's more about treating people with trust and respect. You're not king of the courtroom."
Slaton filled his time on the stage by recounting his years of experience and his devotion to the vulnerable families he guides through cases of child custody, divorce and child support payments.
Florida law requires anyone running for judge to "maintain the dignity appropriate to judicial office and act in a manner consistent with the impartiality, integrity, and independence of the judiciary" while on the campaign trail. While Slaton's race requires one of the three candidates to collect 50 percent, plus one vote, on Aug. 26 to avoid a runoff Nov. 4, voters will decide the second judgeship up for grabs in the primary.
Circuit Judge Mark Jones, who drew one opponent in attorney Donald Barrett, cited his 34 years as an attorney and his prior military service in Key West as proof of his ability to make a commitment.
"I've worked my hardest and done my best to be the kind of judge this community deserves," said Jones. He finished by asking the crowd to tell anyone who asks who to vote for Aug. 26 "to 'check Mark.'"
Barrett told the crowd he isn't as young as he may look, noting that Jones was the same age when he took office, as was John F. Kennedy.
"I'm 43 years old, I've been a lawyer for 18 years," said Barrett, a former assistant chief state attorney who has had his own law practice for about seven years.
Barrett did bring up the word "scandal," but only as an example of what he called the low standards some voters have when choosing a judge.
"We should expect excellence from all of our judges," said Barrett. "I've heard people say it's whether someone has had a scandal. Not having a scandal should be the floor, not the ceiling."