County Judge Paul Damico challenged by Karen Velez

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More than 20 years after Palm Beach County Judge Paul Damico was nominated, he faces his first challenger in the upcoming August election.

In a surprise move, 51-year-old Boca Raton attorney Karen Velez decided to challenge the longtime jurist after initially announcing she would try to overthrow County Judge Marni Bryson.

While conventional wisdom suggested Bryson was vulnerable because she was reprimanded in May by the Florida Supreme Court for repeatedly missing work, Velez said her research told her otherwise.

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It showed that Bryson already had support from women’s groups, Velez said. Additionally, if challenged, Bryson would contradict any criticism of the disciplinary action by saying it never would have happened if she was male, she said.

“Judge Bryson played the gender card successfully,” Velez said. Bryson, who has not spoken publicly about his disciplinary case, also paid $51,000 into a campaign account to scare off potential opponents, Velez said.

Damico nearly doubled that amount, funneling $100,000 of his own money into his campaign war chest, according to recent reports. The 62-year-old Jupiter resident also raised an additional $41,000 in contributions, mostly from attorneys.

By comparison, only $5,500 of the roughly $27,000 Velez has to spend in the race came from his supporters. The rest came from his own wallet.

Damico was a prosecutor, defense lawyer before becoming a judge

Although Velez isn’t critical of Damico’s work on the bench, after 21 years, she said, it’s time for a change.

Velez, who spent 13 years working as Broward County’s deputy public defender after quitting teaching to earn his law degree, has been in private practice since 2018.

Like Velez, Damico worked as an assistant public defender. Planning to be a judge one day, he said he wanted to understand both sides of the criminal justice system. So he left the Palm Beach County District Attorney’s office after 10 years and spent five years representing those who could not afford to hire a defense attorney.

He described his years in the county public defender’s office as some of the most rewarding of his career.

“It was great being a prosecutor and taking people who had done wrong and getting them off the streets,” he said. “But taking someone you thought was innocent and having them declared innocent by a jury of their peers was fabulous.”

His time in the Office of the Public Defender also ushered in one of the most difficult chapters of his professional life. Damico and another top aide in 2000 accused then-public defender Richard Jorandby of threatening to fire them unless they each contributed $10,000 to his re-election campaign.

Jorandby, who lost his re-election bid and died in 2012, eventually pleaded guilty to nine misdemeanors and was sentenced to one year of house arrest. At the time, Damico said his decision to report his once-revered boss was “a very difficult thing to do, but it was the right thing to do.”

A year after Damico exposed Jorandby’s wrongdoings to prosecutors, he was appointed to the bench by Governor Jeb Bush.

Velez emphasizes years of representing Hispanic clients in a wide variety of cases

Like Damico, Velez said she relished the years she spent as an assistant public defender.

“You are forcing the state to prove its case,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are wrongly convicted. I loved the challenge.

Karen Velez, candidate for judge of Palm Beach County.

A proud “Nuyorican,” born in New York but having spent much of her youth with her family in Puerto Rico, Velez was able to use her fluency in Spanish to assist customers. She was bugged as what she said the bureau called a “Spanish float,” representing Hispanics charged with a wide variety of crimes.

“It really made me a better lawyer,” she said. “It kept me on my toes because I handled everything from misdemeanor to homicide. If the client spoke Spanish (I represented him), and I did for several years.

She said her background as a Hispanic woman would help her as a judge. The county’s Latino population has exploded in recent years, but the justice system does not reflect the region’s changing demographics.

If successful, Velez would be the first Hispanic woman elected to the county bench, although others have been named. Only two sitting judges — circuit judges Daliah Weiss and Luis Delgado — are Hispanic.

Damico, who has consistently received high marks from attorneys in biannual surveys conducted by the Palm Beach County Bar Association, said he’s all too aware of cultural biases that can influence results of criminal and civil cases.

“I really, really want it. Things like racism, for example,” he said. “Some people will say the courtroom is sterile, don’t worry about it. But it’s ridiculous.”

Part of his job as a judge is to unearth biases that might prevent someone from getting a fair trial, he said.

“I’m not afraid to talk about it,” Damico said. “I’ve never been afraid to talk about it because it’s important. It is critical. This allows me to make an appropriate decision.

County court influence goes beyond low-key stature, candidates agree

Both pointed out that the county court, known as the “people’s court”, has a huge impact on how people perceive the justice system. As a place where small financial disputes, evictions and minor criminal offenses are resolved, it is the only court the vast majority of people will experience first hand.

Damico says he tries to take the opportunity to educate those who appear before him, including young lawyers. Besides educating people, he said his main rule is that people should be treated with respect.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, what culture, what background, what race, what gender expression you have. It just doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everyone is treated with 100% quality when they step foot in our courtroom and with the utmost respect.”

Given how few people know the court system when they appear in county court, Velez said patience is key.

“You want to help them navigate a bit and you have to be able to be patient,” she said. “But you also have to be firm, know the law and know the rules. And I can do it from day one.

The race is non-partisan. The term is six years. The annual salary of a county court judge was recently increased to $172,015.

Jane Musgrave covers federal and civil courts and occasionally ventures into criminal trials in state court. Contact her at [email protected]

PALM BEACH COUNTY JUDGE CANDIDATES

Paul Damico

Personal: Married, two children; lives in Jupiter

Law Degree: Florida State University

Professional: Appointed to the bench in 2001 by Governor Jeb Bush; subsequently re-elected; Deputy Public Defender for Palm Beach County, 1997-2001; Palm Beach County Assistant District Attorney, 1986-1997.

Community involvement: Adjunct Professor Barry University; volunteer for the Wings for Women mentoring program and Xcel Strategies.

Quote: “I love doing this job. It is a privilege and an honor to serve you, to serve the public and to serve the lawyers. And I really want to keep doing that for the next six years.

Karen Velez

Personal: Married, one daughter; lives in Boca Raton

Law Degree: Nova Southeastern University

Professional: Sole practitioner, 2018-present; Broward County Deputy Public Defender, 2005-2018.

Community Involvement: Board member of the Women’s Foundation of Florida and co-chair of its nonpartisan “Women On The Run” training program.

Quote: “Judges are extremely important. Judges must reflect the population. Judges must be skilled, passionate and empathetic and have the roll up your sleeves work ethic that I have.

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