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Q&A WITH COUNTY JUDICIAL CANDIDATE JOHN B. FLYNN

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by James Coulter

John B. Flynn is currently running as a County Judge in Group 8 in Polk County. With more than 20 years of legal experience, he feels he is best qualified to not only serve as a county judge, but also protect the constitutional rights of his constituents.

“I have spent the last two decades protecting and defending the constitution,” he said. “I believe the Constitution should be respected and to never legislate from the bench. I am experienced, dedicated, and ready to serve the citizens of Polk County.”

He graduated Nova Southeastern with a master’s degree in business and Loyola University with a Juris Doctor. He had intended to work in practice tax law, but later changed his career path for trial work following an internship with the Jefferson Parrish’s District Attorney’s Office. He worked his way up the career ladder, starting as a prosecutor, then serving as a defense attorney, victim advocate, and a trial attorney for over twenty years.

Flynn served as the former Chair of the 10th Judicial Circuit Grievance Committee. He has also served as a former Chair on the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee and am a member of both the National Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Polk County Trial Lawyers Association. He contributes to the legal community as a voluntary mediator, a victim advocate and as a member of the Lakeland Bar Association and a former member of the Wilson Inns of Court.

“I bring a lifetime of experience in the courtroom, a belief in the American justice system, and a real desire to serve,” he said. “It is for these reasons that my experience both in the courtroom and in life are essential to meeting the high standards of Judicial service.”

We recently sat down with John B. Flynn to ask him a few questions about his political campaign for county judge. Here is what he had to say:

Q: What qualifies you to be a Judge beyond a law degree?

A: In a word, experience. It is not only more than 20 years in duration. It is real jury trials in high profile, high stakes cases. It is experience on both sides of the courtroom. I have been the assigned prosecutor for the City of Lakeland’s courthouse and as a Felony Prosecutor in Bartow. I have represented individuals accused of a crime and fought to protect their constitutional rights. I understand the law and how the unique dynamics of each case differ. I will remain committed to the investment of time it requires to give each case the attention it deserves and I possess the even temperament required to maintain an orderly and efficient courtroom.

Additionally, I have been previously responsible for investigating and making recommendations to the Florida Supreme Court regarding allegations of misconduct by local attorneys as the chair of the Tenth Judicial Circuit Grievance Committee. I was also the chair of the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee where we monitored and investigated individuals who held

themselves out as attorneys who were not qualified to do so. Several of those cases led to prosecutions. Finally, I have volunteered to serve as a mediator and arbitrator for the Florida Bar essentially acting as a Judge hearing the evidence regarding disputes between attorneys and their clients.

Q: How will you balance being an independent judge and an elected official?

A: My duty as a judge would to protect the Constitution and individual rights under the constitution. It is my obligation, which I gladly accept, to set aside any concerns about future elections in favor of making sure that everyone that enters my courtroom is treated with fairness, courtesy, and respect. My role is to rule on the evidence that is put before me in accordance with the rules of evidence and the laws of the State of Florida. I have been working in this system long enough to know what my duties are and how to execute them. I will follow my oath in every aspect without hesitation.

Q: What are the biggest changes you think we need to make to our justice system?

A: I would like to eliminate the inefficiencies in the justice system. A major factor in many county court cases is mental health. A better way to deal with these individuals is to utilize court-based diversion programs to help steer these individuals to appropriate counseling and medication necessary to help them be more productive members of society. Polk has successfully implemented three of these problem-solving courts which could be used more widely to help reduce the backlog of cases that we are now experiencing. Modeled after nationally recognized drug courts these programs offer a continuum of drug treatment alternatives to jail for eligible non-violent defendants. These courts increase public safety and reduce crime in a cost-effective manner.

I believe the courts should make use of readily available technology to make more time available on the docket to address issues and motions that have been stalled due to the backlog in the court. At the beginning of my campaign, I met with Sheriff Judd who expressed a desire for the next county court judge to handle things as expeditiously as possible. In his words he does not want an innocent person sitting in jail. I agree with that sentiment completely and I assure the voters that with my experience on both sides of the courtroom that I will be able to prioritize the Covid backlog. I also met with the Clerk of Courts, Stacy M. Butterfield, C.P.A. who expressed a desire for consistency between the Judges, having practiced before all the county judges in our circuit I understand how a courtroom needs to run to keep consistency between the various county courts.

Q: What reforms do you support to increase access to justice for all? Will you fight for them?

A: I don’t believe it is the Judiciary’s place to interject themselves in what the law should be as that is our legislatures’ job. I feel like judges that articulate their views on the law and what it should be undermine the very concept that makes our country so great, the separation of powers. It is not the judicial branches’ place to create or suggest what laws we should have. That responsibility belongs to our voters and who they put in office to govern our great state and county. I don’t believe it is a judge’s place to interject themselves as to what laws should be implemented or alter the legislative intent behind those that already exist. A judge’s job is to follow and uphold the laws of the state and our county.

As a judge, I would give all those who appear before me equal access to justice whether they are indigent and can’t pay for their own attorney or if they do not have command of the English language. There are laws already in existence that provide attorneys for those who cannot afford them and ensure interpreters are available for those who cannot speak English. I do not feel that it would be my place to do anything above or beyond what we already have in that regard. I also feel like it would be inappropriate for a sitting judge or a judicial candidate to vocalize such beliefs as to what the laws should be to collect more votes.

If our community feels that something else needs to be done, then they are free to vote their conscience and elect representatives that can create laws in keeping with their views. It is not my place as a judge to be a politician and bend the knee to whatever the current events flavor of the day is in terms of pop-culture or trending political views. I wanted to explain myself before I offered you the simple answer of … nothing. I will not support any legislation as a judge because that is not what a Judge should be doing while on the bench or what a candidate should be doing when trying to get elected. In fact, I know that there are legal constraints on what views a judge may articulate in adherence to the cannons of conduct. I hope this answers your question sufficiently. The reality is my personal political views are not relevant when I am charged with the grave responsibility of following the laws we have. As your judge that is exactly what I will intend to do.


5 candidates contend for vacant Polk County judge seat

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.

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 B. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.