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Judge Rodney Smith pleads his case to voters

Candidate appeals for support in re-election bid

8/7/2014, 9 a.m.
In a few weeks, the verdict will be out on the future of Judge Rodney Smith. A seasoned Black judge ...
Judge Rodney Smith.

In a few weeks, the verdict will be out on the future of Judge Rodney Smith.

A seasoned Black judge with six years of experience, Smith is well-respected among many top lawyers and legal organizations. But he is embroiled in an intense re-election bid to the 11th Circuit of Appeals, a position Smith has held since 2012. His opponent is Christian Carrazana, a tenacious personal trial attorney.

When he was appointed to serve on Miami-Dade’s County Court in 2008, Smith was one of the youngest judges in the state at 33 years old. Raised in Liberty City, Smith graduated from Miami Northwestern Senior High School with honors before attending Michigan State law school, where he graduated from cum laude.

Smith served as a trial attorney at several law firms before being appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. In 2012, after choosing to put himself through the grueling Judicial Nominating Commission process- a voluntary act that speaks well of most candidates- Gov. Rick Scott elevated him to the circuit bench, where he currently serves.

Smith received praised for his involvement in the community and has drawn overwhelming support in local bar association polls.

A graduate of the University of Miami Law School, Carrazana worked for the law firm of Panter Panter & Sampedro for 10 years. He left the firm in May to start his own private practice.

Carrazana has no experience as a judge, but he says his work as a trial lawyer will make him a better judge than Smith. He pointed out cases he won against insurance companies years ago as proof of his legal skills.

“What makes you a good judge is your ability to dissect the law,” Carrazana said. “You have to be a good lawyer and a student of the law first in order to be a good judge.”

Carrazana, 41, is a Cuban-American who has been accused of ethnic politics, an age-old political strategy in South Florida where Latinos use their Spanish surname to win the support of Miami’s dominate Latino electorate.

Despite his accolades, there is heavy concern among Smith’s diverse supporters that he may lose his re-election bid to Carrazana because of his race.

Many believe Carrazana targeted Smith to achieve an easy win that requires less money and campaigning. According to campaign finance records, so far, Smith has raised over $114,000 in campaign contributions, while his opponent has only raised just over $14,000.

Carrazana denies accusations of running a campaign based on ethnicity.

“This is not about race. My fiancee is African-American,” said Carrazana, referring to Jacquetta Grant his girlfriend of two years.

Smith has reasons to worry. According to Miami-Dade’s elections office, there are some 687,575 registered Latino voters in the county compared to 235,123 registered Black voters. Those numbers represent Democratic, Republican and Non-Party Affiliated voters.

But judicial races are non-partisan. Candidates are usually voted on by name recognition, experience or ethnic affiliation. With Black turnout expected to be low as in years past, Smith’s re-election campaign may seem tough.

These factors have Smith criss-crossing Miami-Dade County, hoping to get the maximum amount of Black voters at the polls. He has appeared on local radio stations to promote his experience and community service. That’s all Smith can talk about. Judicial candidates must not speak out on issues to avoid accusations of being bias while presiding over court cases.

Time is running out. Early voting begins Aug. 11. The general elections are Aug. 26. Unlike primary political races, there is no runoff. Candidates with the majority vote wins.

“It’s not so much of voting for the Black candidate; it’s about who’s the most qualified,” said Smith. “But I am humble to realize that voters will know my record and experience as a judge.”

During an interview with The Miami Times, Smith appeared confident in his re-election bid, but he is cautious. His biggest concern is the turnout among Black voters.

“It’s really sad that we as a people don’t exercise our right to vote,” he said. “If you don’t vote, you might as well vote for the other candidate.”