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5 candidates contend for vacant Polk County judge seat

The Ledger logo The Ledger 8/8/2022 Gary White, The Ledger

Polk County voters will choose only one judge in this election cycle.

Five candidates are running to become a county court judge with the 10th Judicial Circuit, based in Bartow. The position in Group 8 is open because Judge Susan Barber is vacating her seat to seek a position as a circuit judge. Barber faced no opposition and will assume her new title in January.

The candidates seeking to replace her are, in alphabetical order: John Flynn, Ruth Moracen Knight, Carmalita Lall, Adam Patton and Tara Wheat. If no candidate receives a majority in the Aug. 23 election, the top two will advance to a runoff election in November.

The duties of the judge will be assigned after the winner is determined. County judges oversee cases in such areas as criminal, civil, evictions and small claims. The 10th Judicial Circuit includes Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties.

Three county judges — Robert Fegers, Mary Catherine Green and Kevin Kohl — faced no opposition and will retain their seats. Among the 12 candidates for circuit court judge, 11 incumbents drew no opposition, and the one open seat had only one entrant, Brenda Ramirez.

MORE 2022 ELECTION COVERAGE:

Here are the backgrounds of the five candidates for county judge in Group 8, in alphabetical order:

John Flynn

Flynn has operated his own private practice in Bartow since 2005. He spent his childhood in Georgia and South Carolina before earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tampa.

Flynn, 48, added a master’s degree in business from Nova Southeastern University and gained his law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans. He intended to practice tax law, but an internship with a prosecutor’s office in New Orleans sparked an interest in trial law, he said.

John Flynn © Provided by John Flynn John Flynn

After passing The Florida Bar exam in 2002, Flynn began his career in the State Attorney’s Office for the 10th Judicial Circuit under the now-retired Jerry Hill. Flynn said he operated the Lakeland office.

After three years as a prosecutor, Flynn went into private practice and soon opened his own firm, The Flynn Law Group.

The Mulberry resident said he handles mostly criminal cases but has also worked in family and civil law.

Flynn, the father of a 7-year-old daughter, is a former chair of the 10th Judicial Circuit Grievance Committee and has been a chair on the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee. He said that he serves as a voluntary mediator and a victim advocate. He is a member of the Lakeland Bar Association and a former member of the Wilson Inns of Court.

The Florida Bar shows Flynn with no discipline in the past 10 years.

Ruth Moracen Knight

For the past 20 years, Knight has worked for the Public Defender's Office of the 10th Judicial Circuit.

Knight’s parents fled Cuba in 1985, bringing her and her sister to the United States, according to her campaign website. She lived in Puerto Rico as a youth when her father served as a volunteer missionary in Haiti.

Knight, 54, holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico Cayey University College, where she studied psychology and community mental health. She received her law degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

Ruth Moracen Knight © Provided by Ruth Moracen Knight Ruth Moracen Knight

After receiving her law degree, Knight spent two years working as a staff attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services in Lakeland. The nonprofit organization provides free legal services to low-income clients in 13 counties and to farmworkers throughout the state. In that role, Knight handled cases involving small claims, landlord-tenant disputes, housing issues and public benefits, according to her campaign site.

Since joining the Public Defender's Office in 2002, Knight has represented defendants unable to afford private lawyers. As an assistant public defender, she has served as misdemeanor division chief and division chief in several felony divisions, along with intervals in the juvenile division representing at-risk children charged with committing delinquent acts.

Knight, a Lakeland resident, has represented clients charged with offenses ranging from criminal traffic infractions to first-degree murders, according to her campaign site. Knight is a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Knight was admitted to The Florida Bar in 2000 and has no discipline reported for the past 10 years.

Carmalita Lall

Lall operates a private practice after previously working for the Public Defender's Office of the 10th Judicial Circuit.

Lall, 54, was born in South America and spent most of her childhood in Canada. She received a bachelor’s degree from York University in Toronto and added certifications in information technology, she said.

Carmalita Lall © Beth Carter Photography/Provided by Carmalita Lall Carmalita Lall

After emigrating to the United States in 2003, Lall worked as a network specialist for a software company with such corporate clients as Verizon, she said.

She eventually began pursuing her long-held goal of a law degree while raising two young daughters. Lall served an internship with the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Orange County while still in law school and earned her degree from Florida A&M College of Law in 2013.

Lall said she first operated a private practice in Lake County. She worked in a variety of areas, including personal injury, elder law and family law, while handling some criminal cases.

Joining the Public Defender's Office in Bartow in 2015, Lall served as an assistant public defender until December, when she returned to private practice. Operating from her Lakeland home, Lall now specializes in civil real estate litigation.

Lall received a master’s degree in public administration from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2018. She has long volunteered as a Guardian ad Litem, representing the interests of abused, abandoned and neglected children in court proceedings.

Lall, whose daughters are now both teenagers, has served on the board of the Polk Association for Women Lawyers the past two years.

Lall was admitted to The Bar in 2014 and has no record of disciplinary actions.

Adam Patton

Patton is a former prosecutor who now operates a solo law practice in Lakeland.

Patton, 43, spent his childhood in the West and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Boise State University in Idaho. He trained as a mediator before receiving a law degree in 2011 from Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville.

Adam Patton © Provided by Adam Patton Adam Patton

Soon afterward, Patton joined the State Attorney’s Office for the 10th Judicial Circuit under the now retired Jerry Hill. As an assistant state attorney, Patton first directed the Lakeland division and later worked in a felony division. He said he prosecuted cases involving charges ranging from misdemeanors to murder.

Patton left the State Attorney’s Office and in 2016 opened his own law firm, specializing in criminal, family, collaborative and civil law. He said the firm at one time had six employees. Patton said he has handled more than 60 jury trials and more than 100 final hearings or non-jury trials.

Patton is certified by the Florida Supreme Court as a mediator for circuit, family and county courts. He is a member of the Florida Association of Collaborative Professionals and a co-founder of the Collaborative Professionals Association of Central Florida.

A Lakeland resident, Patton is married and the father of five children. He was admitted to The Florida Bar in 2012 and has no reported discipline in the past 10 years.

Tara Wheat

Wheat describes herself as a fourth-generation Polk County resident. She spent her childhood in Lake Wales and Lakeland, graduating from Lake Wales High School.

Wheat, 39, earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Florida Southern College in Lakeland. She then spent about a decade as a teacher at public schools in Polk County.

Tara Wheat © Provided by Tara Wheat Tara Wheat

While working as a teacher, Wheat enrolled in a part-time legal program at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. She received her law degree in 2012 and continued to teach, serving as director of the Academy of Legal Studies at George Jenkins High School in Lakeland. 

Wheat left teaching to practice law full time and joined the Public Defender's Office of the 10th Judicial Circuit, based in Bartow. During six years with that office, she said, she has worked in the juvenile division.

A Winter Haven resident, Wheat is married and a mother of four children. Her professional affiliations include the Willson American Inn of Court, the Florida Association of Women Lawyers and the Polk County Trial Lawyers Association. She is a member of the League of Women Voters and a board member of the Bartow Junior Service League.

Wheat was admitted to The Florida Bar in 2013 and has no reported discipline in the past 10 years.

Financial details

As of Aug. 3, Flynn led all candidates with $36,625 in campaign contributions. That figure includes $20,000 given to his own campaign, according to records from the Polk County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Flynn’s contributors include Kaylor Law Group, Saunders Law Group and the Law Firm of Gil Colon. Flynn has also received donations from fellow lawyers Neil O’Toole and James Headley.

Wheat had reported campaign contributions of $28,460, including $10,000 from the candidate. Wheat’s financial supporters include MidFlorida Credit Union, the Law Firm of Gil Colon, fellow attorneys Kent Lilly and Amy Thornhill and Marion Moorman, retired public defender for the 10th Judicial Circuit.

Lall had received $25,313 in reported campaign contributions, with $21,860 coming from the candidate herself. Lall’s donors include Kaylor Law and Jeff Holmes, a Bartow lawyer.

Patton had reported contributions of $20,398. That total includes $11,500 given to his own campaign.

Patton has financial support from Focus Realty, McArthur Mediation Services, Hickman Homes, Saunders Law and fellow lawyer Matthew Kaylor.

Knight disclosed $11,620 in campaign contributions, with $8,000 coming from the candidate herself. Campaign donors included Saunders Law Group and attorney Matthew Kaylor.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: 5 candidates contend for vacant Polk County judge seat

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