Circuit Court Judge Peter Adrien, who faces a re-election challenge, received the worst rating in the Dade County Bar Association's judicial poll, with 55 percent of respondents labeling him unqualified for the bench.
Judges receiving the best ratings included Circuit Judges John W. Thornton Jr., Carroll Kelly and Jennifer D. Bailey, who received the highest "exceptionally qualified" rankings.
The poll, sent by mail to the 14,000 attorneys and judges in Miami-Dade in early June, gave them an opportunity to rate the competency of judges and judicial candidates. Also reviewed were general magistrates, senior judges and some on the 3rd District Court of Appeal and Florida Supreme Court.
Only 1,187 lawyers responded to the poll, fewer than in previous years.
Those polled were asked to evaluate qualifications only of those with whom they are sufficiently acquainted.
Most attorneys had a strong opinion of Circuit Judges Bailey and Adrien - with drastically different results.
High approval ratings went to Bailey, who oversees the civil division and has taken charge of the court's handling of the foreclosure crisis. More than 95 percent of those who responded considered her qualified, placing her second overall.
"I am fortunate to have a job I love and I am honored to come to work every day. I hope my enthusiasm for what I do is always evident to the attorneys of the Dade County Bar, and I appreciate their support," she wrote in an e-mail Friday.
Adrien, who had a paltry 12.25 percent of respondents rate him as exceptionally qualified, recently presided over the heavily watched Dwyane Wade civil trial over a failed restaurant partnership. Adrien was rebuked recently by the 3rd District Court of Appeal for refusing to recuse himself from a case involving an attorney who sued him. That attorney, former Florida Bar president Frank Angones, successfully sued the judge six years ago to force him to change his name on a judicial ballot.
Adrien was accused of ethnic electioneering when he tried to run as Peter "Camacho" Adrien.
Adrien did not return calls for comment by deadline.
The poll also offered a glimpse of what could lie ahead for those in contested races.
While Adrien received the lowest scores of any sitting judge, his opponent received the highest scores of any judicial candidate.
Miami attorney Samantha Ruiz Cohen said she was humbled after hearing that more than 85 percent considered her qualified to sit on the bench, and she hopes the general public will trust the views of legal insiders in making their choices at the polls.
"Especially because I'm running against an incumbent, I think it speaks volumes, and I'm very humbled by these results and the support. The results speak for themselves. They really do," she said. "It's a strong message that the lawyers are sending out."
In another race, Assistant Public Defender Manny Alvarez scored slightly better than the sitting judge he's running against, Circuit Judge Edward Newman. Alvarez received an approval of 81 percent to Newman's 78 percent.
In another race, commercial litigator Robert Kuntz edged out Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Monica Gordo in the Bar poll. They are running for the judicial seat to open by the upcoming retirement of Circuit Judge Paul Siegel.
More than 77 percent rated Kuntz as qualified. He is a former journalist at the Miami Review, which was later renamed the Daily Business Review.
More than 75 percent of respondents thought Gordo, who prosecuted the murder case involving the 2006 Liberty City drive-by shooting of 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins, is qualified to be judge.
"What it really rates is your reputation among the lawyers," Kuntz said of the poll. "I don't think there's anything more precious to you than your reputation, so it's gratifying to see it acknowledged."
If that's so, then the reputation of defense attorney Milton Hirsch precedes him. Hirsch, who ran unopposed and is set to start early next year, was considered qualified by nearly 89 percent of those polled.
"And I haven't even taken the bench yet!" exclaimed Hirsch, who said he hopes to meet expectations.
Only a fifth of those polled had anything to say about candidate Michaelle Gonzalez-Paulson, who is running against County Judge Flora Seff. But of the 238 who voted, nearly half consider the Doral solo practitioner unqualified. Seff fared better than her rival but remained the second lowest-ranked sitting judge, labeled by more than 22 percent as unqualified.
Neither returned calls by deadline.
Like Gonzalez-Paulson, another fresh face to the judicial elections process also received low scores. Circuit Judge-elect Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat, a former state legislator who was automatically elected when the incumbent stepped aside, was rated unqualified by more than 46 percent of respondents.
Rodriguez-Chomat did not return calls by deadline.
Lawyers expressed a similar lack of confidence in Senior Circuit Judge Richard V. Margolius, with nearly 41 percent labeling him unqualified. Conversely, Senior Circuit Judge Jeffrey Rosinek received the highest approval rating of any senior judge, 97 percent.
John W. Thornton Jr., a former Dade County Bar president who was appointed a circuit court judge in 2008, received the highest approval rating among the judges.
Thornton was rated qualified by nearly 97 percent of respondents. The judge, made associate administrator of the criminal division this year, credited those who surround him.
"Everyone in this division works very hard, especially the lawyers and court staff," he said. "I love being able to do the right thing for the right reason everyday."
And he had something nice to say for Bailey, who came in second.
"The work that she does, with all the foreclosures they've got, that's one hard-working, bright lady."
Jose Pagliery can be reached at (305) 347-6648.
Judge Peter Adrien photo via the Associated Press