Q&A with County Judicial Candidate Tara Wheat
by James Coulter
Tara Wheat is currently running for County Judge in Polk County. An attorney for almost a decade, she has been an assistant public defender for the past six years, and she currently practices in the juvenile division, protecting the rights of children who are undergoing delinquency proceedings. Prior to becoming a member of the Florida Bar, she was an educator for ten years at the secondary level, teaching English and legal classes.
“I am committed to bringing an equitable and unbiased perspective to the bench,” she told the Daily Ridge via e-mail. “My belief in a balanced judicial approach stems from my background as an educator and attorney, which taught me to approach difficult decisions with logic and objectivity. I appreciate the importance of thorough examination of facts and legal precedence, which allow a judge to evaluate each case with sound, objective reasoning.”
We recently sat down with Wheat and asked her a few questions about her qualifications and positions. This is what she had to say:
Q: What qualifies you to be a judge beyond a law degree?
A: My qualifications to be Polk’s next County Judge go beyond my legal education. I am a fourth-generation Polk County native and have spent my adult life in public service to my community, first as an educator, then as an attorney, and hopefully next as a judge. I am dedicated to our community and hope that, as a judge, I can further serve Polk’s citizens with the right balance of principle and reason.
As an educator for ten years, I taught English language and literature for several years, as well as various legal courses, including college-level courses, to secondary students, which required that I be well-versed in all areas of the law. I am very familiar with the tenets of many practice areas. Furthering education and the pursuit of knowledge are important to me, and as a judge, continuing research and study of the law will enable the litigants in my courtroom to feel confident that the judge presiding over their case has the knowledge and qualifications necessary to handle their matter.
As an assistant public defender, my job has been to defend the Constitution and the rights of the people living under our Constitution. A public defender’s work is irrevocably tied to the 5th, 6th, 8th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Due process, a fair trial with assistance of counsel, and equal protection of the laws are all rights guaranteed by the Constitution and safeguarded by the work of public defenders. Additionally, unlike a private attorney, I cannot choose the citizens I represent, but serve any and all clients that are assigned to me. This gives me the ability to handle every personality or issue that arises out of that representation, which will serve me well as a judge, where I will be responsible for any citizen who appears before me in the courtroom.
As a judge, I feel my role would be another way to protect the Constitution of the United States. A county judge’s role is to decide matters brought before the court by applying the laws set forth
by the Constitution of the United States, the Florida Constitution and Florida Statutes, and the precedent case law.
Q: How will you balance being an independent judge and an elected official?
A: A judge’s role is fairly limited in scope: to decide cases based upon the facts and applicable law. As a judge, I will decide cases neutrally, fairly, and in a balanced manner by evaluating the facts and interpreting the law to the facts of the case before me. There should be no reason for a conflict to exist between my role as a judge and as an elected official, if I do that which I have been elected to do – follow the law. There is a quote from Socrates that is appropriate: “Four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially.” I would like the parties and their counsel who appear before me on a matter, to feel that I have heard them out completely, considered their arguments fully, and decided fairly based upon the facts and law presented. If I can foster a reputation of deciding cases fairly, based on the law, I believe the citizens and voters of Polk County will have faith in my role as an independent judge.
Q: What are the biggest changes you think we need to make to our justice system?
A: In general, changes in the justice system that may be within the control, or at least the scope, of a trial judge include issues with the length of time it takes to resolve a case, access to the court system for some users due to lack of technology or transportation, and any appearance of inappropriate judicial bias for or against particular parties to a cause.
Justice still moves slowly, partly due to backlog caused by Covid-19, even despite all the ways court administration has tried to increase efficiency. Trial judges are able, in some instances, to help move cases forward toward a resolution, within the confines of the procedural rules, by not allowing inappropriate or frivolous delays or continuances.
Trial judges are able to use discretion in determining whether parties are able to make use of technology to appear in court virtually versus appearing in person. While this can help increase access to court for some citizens who may otherwise have been unable to appear in court due to transportation issues, there are still others who will still be unable to appropriately handle their matters in this manner. This is an issue that may require further changes as the role of technology continues to grow in a post-Covid-19 world.
Another issue that can arise is the perception by citizens that some judges are inappropriately biased for or against certain types of parties or attorneys. Judges should strive in all matters to act without bias or showing partiality to any particular party to a cause. For this reason, I have decided against seeking endorsements in this election, as I feel this can cloud the issue of judicial impartiality.
Q: What reforms do you support to increase access to justice for all? Will you fight for them?
A: The National Center for State Courts recommends the following as part of their Justice for All initiative:
• “self-help centers providing unrepresented litigants legal information and standardized forms;
• language access initiatives for court users with limited English proficiency;
• accommodations for court users with disabilities;
• judicial and court staff education efforts to address the needs of self-represented litigants with procedural fairness and compassion;
• the adoption of technologies that reduce trips to the courthouse and enable court users to find legal help and resolve their disputes online;
• and, in certain jurisdictions, efforts to simplify court processes to meet the needs of the unrepresented users.”
I support all of these ideas and would be willing to support methods or technology that would further these initiatives in our own county court.