Gov. DeSantis set to shape a crucial appeals court in Florida with conservative judges

By: - September 11, 2019 7:00 am

Florida First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. Photo by Michael Rivera, Wikimedia Commons

The nine candidates for two seats on Florida’s second-most important court include seven white males, two white females, six members of the Federalist Society, five graduates of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, and precisely no members of minority groups.

Oh, and four of them are millionaires.

As for their professional backgrounds, the candidates submitted by the First  District Court of Appeal’s judicial nominating commission to Gov. Ron DeSantis hail from the trial bench, in-house corporate and government jobs, and partnerships in leading law firms.

The youngest candidate is 37; the oldest, 54, although one candidate didn’t give her age.

Aides have not indicated when DeSantis will make his selections, but he has until the end of October to decide. What’s clear is nominees like these, for this and other courts, will help the Republican governor deliver on his promise to build a more conservative judiciary.

The 1st DCA’s jurisdiction sprawls across North Florida from Escambia to Nassau counties, extending as far south as Levy County. Smack dab in its center lies Tallahassee, the state capital, giving the court jurisdiction over appeals involving state government, including constitutional and statutory attacks on state laws and administrative actions  – and therefore clout second only to the Florida Supreme Court (it also decides the usual criminal and civil appeals).

The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies originated in 1982 on law school campuses and now counts some of the state and country’s most prominent attorneys and jurists among its numbers. The society advocates for conservative and libertarian ideologies, seeking to counteract what members consider a liberal bias with the profession and judiciary. DeSantis, reportedly himself a society member, has appointed federalists to sit on vetting panels for judges throughout the state.

The nominating commission for the 1st DCA selected the candidates from among 23 aspirants to fill vacancies opened by the departures of judges Allen Winsor and T. Kent Wetherell II, who now sit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

Application forms submitted by the candidates include detailed information about their backgrounds, financial holdings, health, memberships in groups, and personal foibles (for example: Have you sought treatment for kleptomania, pathological or compulsive gambling, pedophilia, exhibitionism, or voyeurism?).

The Florida Phoenix reviewed hundreds of pages of these documents to inform the short bios below. Each candidate declared his or her own ethnic background and provided the details reported here. In addition to review by the commission, the material faces vetting by aides to the governor.

The commission redacted some information under exemptions to Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law that, generally, protect personal privacy (one form redacts the applicant’s age). The panel listed the contenders in alphabetical order to avoid any appearance of preference.

Scott Duncan

Age: 47

Current job: Judge, Santa Rosa County Circuit Court

Demographic: White male

Law School: University of Florida Levin College of Law

Duncan was admitted to practice in 1997 and spent five years as a prosecutor (including two in Escambia County’s drug court) and nine as a commercial litigator in private practice at the Pensacola firm now known as Borowski & Taylor. He mostly represented businesses. He secured appointment to the bench in December 2011. Additionally, he’s been sitting as an associate judge – filling temporary vacancies on case panels – on the 1st DCA since June and expects to participate in oral arguments during September.

As a trial judge, he has presided over criminal, civil, probate, and guardianship cases in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, plus the Escambia County drug court. The only organizations he disclosed belonging to are the Florida Bar, the Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association, and two area Baptist churches (he plays saxophone in his church orchestra).

Duncan applied for judgeships multiple times before taking the bench, including places on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida and the Florida Supreme Court. He gave his net worth at around $220,000. He holds an undergraduate degree from Florida State University.

Gilbert Feltel Jr.

Age: 50

Current job: Chief legal officer, Jacksonville Port Authority

Demographic: White male

Law School: University of Florida Levin College of Law

Feltel was born in St. Louis, Mo., and has lived in Florida for 37 years. He was admitted to practice in 1993 and has spent much of his career within corporate general counsel offices – first at CSX Corp. from 2001 to 2007, followed by a 10-year stint at the Jacksonville commercial litigation firm Tanner Bishop, and joined the port authority in 2017. This is Feltel’s first bid for a judgeship.

He belongs to the Federalist Society’s Jacksonville chapter, and has served on the Florida Bar’s grievance committee since March 2018. Feltel has served as a chairman of the Jacksonville Bar Association’s professionalism committee, as a member of the judicial nominating commission for the 4th Circuit, and as a trustee of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit Historical Society.

He is chairman of the board for the Salvation Army of Northeast Florida, sat on the board of the 200 Club of Jacksonville, and has belonged to the National Rifle Association since 2008. He’s filled service positions at the Christian Family Chapel in Jacksonville since 1998.

Feltel has provided pro bono legal services to clients including many of the organizations he listed. He estimated his net worth at $1.25 million. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida.

George Levesque

Age: 44

Current job: Partner, Gray Robinson

Demographic: White male

Law School: Florida State University College of Law

The West Palm Beach native practices civil and administrative law, but really made his bones as an in-house lawyer for the Florida House and Senate. He worked as deputy chief of staff, special counsel, and general counsel for the House between 2006 and 2012 before becoming general counsel of the Senate, where he served through 2016.

The chambers continue as clients in Levesque’s private practice (and he lists Senate President Bill Galvano among his references). He did an earlier stint in private practice with the Tallahassee firm now known as Andrews, Crabtree, Knox & Longfellow and worked for two years as a legislative analyst in the Florida House during the late 1990s.

Recent clients have included the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Florida Supreme Court Nominating Commission. This is his fourth bid for a bench appointment – the 1st DCA nominating commission short-listed him for two vacancies in 2015.

Levesque belongs to the Federalist Society and was FSU Law’s chapter president in 2001. He served on the 1st DCA’s judicial nominating commission between 2006 and 2010, serving as chairman during his final year. He performed pro bono legal services while in private practice. His net worth: $1.9 million. Levesque holds a bachelor’s degree from Bob Jones University, the conservative Christian college in South Carolina, where he made dean’s list twice.

Robert Long Jr.

Age: 37

Current job: Judge, Second Judicial Circuit

Demographic: White male

Law School: University of Florida Levin College of Law

A life-long Tallahasseean, Long has served on Leon County’s trial bench since his appointment in 2016; he was returned without opposition last year. He also holds the rank of lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General Corps, where his duties included “complex and highly sensitive national security matters involving Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.”

Before law school, Long worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Leon County for three years. He was admitted to practice in 2008 and joined Tallahassee’s Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell before becoming general counsel to the sheriff’s department for two years. Beside his work as a trial judge, Long has participated as an associate judge on the 1st DCA.

He belongs to the Federalist Society (and was president of the Tallahassee and UF Law chapters), Leadership Tallahassee, the Economic Club of Florida, the Rotary Club, the Tallahassee Bar Association, the American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars. He has served as chairman of the marriage ministry at Trinity United Methodist Church. He set his net worth at $172,000. He holds an undergraduate degree from Florida State University.

Rachel Nordby

Age: 38

Current job: Partner, Shutts & Bowen; vice chair, appellate practice

Demographic: White female

Law School: Florida State University College of Law

Nordby is a Tallahassee native who became eligible to practice in 2008. She joined her firm in 2018 after service as state deputy solicitor general in the Florida attorney general’s office. Immediately following law school, she worked as a clerk to 1st DCA Judge Bradford Thomas. This is her first application for a judgeship, although she has served on the Statewide Nominating Commission for Judges of Compensation Claims, who hear workers’ compensation benefits challenges.

Nordby‘s caseload comprises mostly appellate work before the Florida Supreme Court and 1st DCA, generally focused on governmental and constitutional law.

While with the state, Nordby’s represented state agencies, former Gov. Rick Scott, and members of the Florida Cabinet in legal disputes. She is a Federalist Society member and has led the FSU student chapter. She has served on numerous committees of the Florida Bar, on the state’s Judicial Management Council, and is immediate past president of Tallahassee Women Lawyers. She attends St. Peter’s Anglican Cathedral in Tallahassee.

Nordby holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida. Her references include four members of the 1st DCA plus Florida Supreme Court justices Robert Luck and Carlos Muñiz. She placed her net worth at $181,000.

Gary Perko

Age: 54

Current job: Shareholder and vice president, Hopping Green & Sams

Demographic: White male

Law School: University of North Carolina School of Law, Chapel Hill

Perko joined his law firm’s Tallahassee office as an associate straight out of law school, but while still studying served as a summer associate in Baker & Hostetler’s Orlando office. He practices civil and administrative law in state and federal courts and before agencies including the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings and Public Service Commission.

He’s been involved in appeals in each of Florida’s five intermediate appellate courts, the Florida Supreme Court, the U.S. courts of appeals for the 11th and D.C. circuits, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Recently he’s helped represent Florida’s Department of State against lawsuits challenging the state’s election laws, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s unsuccessful attempt to extend vote-by-mail ballot deadlines in 2018. This is his first application for a judgeship.

Perko serves on the boards of Tallahassee’s Emergency Care & Help Organization (ECHO) and the Tallahassee-Leon County Shelter for homeless people. He listed his total net worth at $3.5 million. Perko was born in Winter Park and earned an undergraduate degree at Florida State University.

Eric Roberson

Age: 39

Current job: Judge, 4th Judicial Circuit

Demographic: White male

Law School: University of Florida Levin College of Law

Roberson is a Jacksonville native who was admitted to practice in 2005 and would be one of three judges on the 1st DCA to hail from that corner of the jurisdiction. His first job was as a prosecutor in that city. After two years, he jumped into private practice at McGuireWoods’ Jacksonville office. Later, he became an associate at the personal injury firm run by Jacksonville’s Jason Porter before establishing his own firm. (Before law school, he worked as a fraud investigator for America Online and as a teacher.)

He began service as a Duval County Court judge in 2015, moving to the circuit court two years later. On the bench, Roberson has handled criminal and civil cases, and presided over the circuit’s injunctions docket involving domestic violence and related matters, and is the administrative judge for the appellate division. He has twice served as an associate judge on the 5th DCA. He applied for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court last year. Among Roberson’s references are local judges, practitioners, and Paul Renner, the Republican chairman of the Florida House Judiciary Committee.

Roberson has belonged to the Federalist Society since 2012. He also belongs to the Riverside Rotary chapter and completed the James Madison Institute’s leaders fellowship program. He runs a limited liability company that manages a rental property – the house Roberson lived in before his marriage. He listed his total net worth at $1.4 million.

Roberson holds an undergraduate degree from the University of North Florida and says he was the first in his family to receive a college education. In law school, he earned an externship at the Florida Supreme Court, where he clerked with Justice Charles Wells.

Cristine Russell

Age: Redacted

Current job: Shareholder and general counsel, Rogers Towers

Demographic: White female

Law School: University of Florida Levin College of Law

Redactions consume considerable swaths of Russell’s application, obscuring details about her health, age, and a number of client representations she offered as examples of her work. What is clear is that she joined her law firm – one of Florida’s oldest – as an associate in 2000 and has risen through the ranks to become a shareholder and general counsel.

Russell describes herself as the firm’s principal appellate lawyer, handling cases ranging from family law to constitutional disputes. She spends about half of her time minding the firm’s legal affairs. Earlier in her career, she concentrated on defending local governments, including against challenges to sign ordinances.

Her only other application to the bench was to be a federal magistrate judge in 2013. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Terrell Hodges between 1998 and 2000. Now retired, he’s listed among her references.

The professional memberships she disclosed don’t include the Federalist Society, but she did list the Catholic Lawyers Guild. Russell’s application did not include data about her assets or net worth; the commission allows candidates to submit tax returns from three years instead and these showed that she earned $148,661 in 2016, $170,609 in 2017, and $111,638 in 2018. Russell earned her undergraduate degree from Davidson College in North Carolina, and holds a master’s degree in pastoral theological studies from Ave Maria University, a Roman Catholic institution in Southwest Florida.

Adam Tanenbaum

Age: 47

Current job: General counsel, Florida House of Representatives

Demographic: White male

Law School: Georgetown University Law Center

Tanenbaum has held 22 jobs since graduating from law school within the top third of his class in 1996, beginning with a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Stanley Marcus in Miami; cycling among law firms including Carlton Fields, Kay Scholer, and a solo practice; and political and government work for the Republican Party of Florida, state and federal public defenders, the state departments of Legal Affairs and State, and the Florida House of Representatives, where he’s been the chief in-house lawyer since 2016.

He claims considerable experience with civil litigation, criminal trials and appeals, ethics and administrative law, and public records. Among his notable litigation, Tanenbaum lists his key role in defending Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage against federal constitutional challenges in 2014. This marks his first bid for the bench, although in 2008 he ran unopposed for a community development board seat in Tampa.

Tanenbaum belongs to the Federalist Society and has been a member of various state, local, and federal bar associations over his career – plus the Rotary Club and Toastmasters International.

He’s served as a lector for Roman Catholic parishes including Tallahassee’s Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More. He is a Massachusetts native who’s lived in Florida for 43 nonconsecutive years (with sojourns in D.C. and New York). He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and reported a net worth of around $509,000.

Correction: This story has been changed to correct the name of the Shutts & Bowen law firm.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.