County judge and circuit judge races: We recommend ...

Several legal professionals gave the Observer their views on the judge races.
By: 
Aug. 23, 2018

Updated Aug. 23 to correct information about Steven Burk. He practices in DeLand, not Deltona. Also, he has not refused drug tests in the past; rather, he has not even been asked to submit to drug tests. He revealed to the Volusia Bar his marijuana use in the spirit of full disclosure.

Of all the names on the ballot in this Primary, the candidates for judge might make the biggest impact in our community if elected. And yet, they are the candidates about whom voters often know the least. To help our readers, the Observer consulted with several legal professionals about the candidates so that we could offer our own recommendations.

County Judge

Incumbent Dawn Fields received the lowest ratings of the eight Volusia County judges in a survey of Volusia Bar attorneys. That is concerning. Is it enough to vote her out of office?

The challenger is Steven Burk, a DeLand attorney who has argued 10 jury trials in the past 10 years. That’s not a lot. Most of the legal professionals consulted by the Observer agreed that jury trial experience is an important test of a potential judge.

Moreover, Burk revealed in his judicial election questionnaire, submitted to the Volusia Bar, that he had used marijuana to deal with pain after surgeries. While that may not bother many voters, it does raise an important question: Should an attorney who willingly justifies breaking the law be entrusted with the role of upholding and respecting the law? We say no.

We recommend Dawn Fields.

Circuit Judge

Whereas a county judge deals with misdemeanors and civil matters, a judge in the 7th Judicial Circuit could be assigned to oversee both civil matters and serious felonies, including murder. Therefore, trial experience and proficiency are of utmost importance.

Of the three candidates running for this open seat, Sebrina Slack and Ryan Will both earned high marks from the legal professionals consulted. Both would make good judges.

One potential concern with Will is the reprimand he received from the Volusia Bar after he called a defendant a “crackhead” in his closing argument of a 2012 murder trial. That could make some question whether he has the demeanor to be a judge, but one source who is familiar with him said the reprimand humbled him and that he learned from it. Generally speaking, Will is a compassionate person who will be a good listener as a judge.

Slack has an edge on Will with regard to her experience managing her own law firm, and she also has experience in civil cases. By contrast, Will has been with the State Attorney’s Office for almost all of his career and has focused almost entirely on criminal prosecution.

However, the scales tip in Will’s favor overall because of his trial experience. In the past decade, Slack has not argued any jury trials. Will has argued 67; of those, 25 were homicide trials since 2010, including high-profile cases such as the Luis Toledo trial. Will has been a star at the State Attorney’s Office, advancing through the ranks quickly and being named the office’s Top Gun.

History indicates that judges with experience at the State Attorney’s Office have been strong judges (see Dennis Craig and Raul Zambrano). With his foundation in the courtroom, Will should be able to learn what is necessary to oversee civil cases and be a strong judge in the circuit.

We recommend Ryan Will.