SEBRING — When Circuit Judge J. Dale Durrance first was assigned to Highlands County from 1986 to 1987, the situation was different, he recalled Wednesday.
The addition to the Highlands County Courthouse was still years away and at the time he was the only judge assigned to Highlands County, which meant he might hear criminal cases one day and civil cases the next, he said.
“It gave me a lot of different experience in a short amount of time,” he said.
As of July 1, Durrance will become the circuit judge handling felony criminal cases in Highlands County, the fourth time he’s been assigned to the 10th Judicial District’s second largest county. The district includes Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties. For the last year, Circuit Judge William Sites has handled the felony cases in Highlands County.
This year, unlike when Durrance first came to Highlands County, separate judges assigned here handle juvenile, civil and county court cases. Currently, Judge Olin W. Shinholser handles family court, Judge Angela J. Cowden holds juvenile and probate court and Judge Peter F. Estrada handles civil court.
Chief Circuit Judge Wm. Bruce Smith said that since not enough judges live in Highlands County to handle all those courts, a judge from Polk County is typically assigned cases for a year in Highlands County. The tradition is a year because of the commute, Smith added. At the same time, he said, the judges enjoy working in Highlands County because of the nice people they encounter and the court personnel.
Currently, one factor in that was the retirement last year of Circuit Judge J. David Langford, who lives in Highlands County.
“When we lost Judge Langford that impacted us,” Smith said.
One of the main reasons why there’s not enough judges who live in Highlands County to handle all the different types of court is that Highlands County attorneys are apparently reluctant to run for judge, Smith said.
With Polk County being so much larger, he said, those attorneys perceive a disadvantage in seeking election, he said.
Kevin James D’Espies, an attorney in Lake Placid and treasurer of the Highlands County Bar Association, agrees with that. “Most attorneys here don’t have any desire to run for judgeships,” he said.
They would face a lack of name recognition in Polk County, he said.
D’Espies said its more likely for a Highlands County attorney to be appointed to a vacancy on the bench. That way when they did run for election, they would essentially be the incumbent, he said. “Not many attorneys will run against a sitting judge.”
Brandon S. Craig, secretary of the bar association, said he agrees, adding that during an election it would be hard for an attorney in Highlands County to win against an opponent in Polk County.
But Cowden seems to have the best of both worlds. She rents a house in Highlands County, but maintains her main residence in Polk County. Cowden said that makes it easier for her, since she prefers serving in Highlands County because of the people here.
Meanwhile, Durrance said, he looks forward to his change of assignment. He’s served as a circuit or county judge since 1979. He said he believes that makes him the longest continually serving judge in Florida. He’s been an assistant state attorney, a private attorney and a bill drafter in the Legislature.
Besides his first and latest assignments, he also was in Highlands County from 1992 to 1993 and 1996 to 2000.
“I’m a yo-yo and I keep coming back,” he said.