Torpy, Musselman highlight experience in judge race dominated by sheriff's endorsement

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Judicial elections tend to be low-key affairs. This year's race for County Court Group 4 between Kimberly Musselman and Renee Torpy, however, has drawn a bit more attention thanks to the involvement of Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey.

Musselman, an assistant state attorney in the office of State Attorney Phil Archer, came forward in August with claims that Ivey tried to get her drop out of the race earlier this year, in return for his help getting elected or appointed state attorney, the office currently held by Archer, she said. The allegations were reported by FLORIDA TODAY.

Ivey has since thrown his effort behind stumping for Torpy, an injunction-for-protection attorney at Serene Harbor domestic violence center in Melbourne, whom Ivey had previously endorsed for the seat.

Election issues: Judge candidate says Ivey offered to help secure appointment if she dropped out of race

He has made public appearances with Torpy, campaigned on her behalf and helped organize a fundraiser last month that included a long list of local business leaders, elected officials and wealthy Ivey supporters.

While the sheriff's involvement in the race has drawn the headlines, Torpy and Musselman have been busy running otherwise quiet but active campaigns, highlighting their local connections and experience as attorneys to convince voters that each is the better choice to take the bench in Brevard.

Renee Torpy at the North Brevard Democratic Club judicial candidate forum on July 25 at Dixie Crossroads in Titusville.
Renee Torpy at the North Brevard Democratic Club judicial candidate forum on July 25 at Dixie Crossroads in Titusville.

Musselman has so far had modest success convincing donors, raising about $53,300 including a $32,000 loan to herself, with the balance coming mainly from local lawyers and business owners. She has spent nearly all of it on signs, mailers and other ad buys.

Torpy has meanwhile leveraged her relationships with Ivey and others, as well as the local business community, to raise $160,900 including $100,000 of her own funds. Most of the rest came from a mix of attorneys, business owners and companies, and a handful of lobbyists and doctors.

She has spent about $82,700 so far, most of it on political ads including a series of video spots.

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Unlike candidates in other kinds of races, judge candidates are bound by the same code of ethics that controls what sitting judges are allowed to say and do in public. That includes not talking about their political leanings (judge races are non-partisan), their stances on many issues and even, to an extent, the personal guiding principles they might follow when ruling on cases.

That helps preserve the fairness and independence of the courts, according to Chris Muro, a political science professor at Eastern Florida State College. But it does leave only a few ways for them to reach potential voters, he said: their experience, personal histories and endorsements.

"That's pretty much all the voters have to go on," Muro said.

Torpy spotlights diverse experience

Accordingly, both candidates have focused on their legal experience on the campaign trail.

Torpy worked as a legal intern and research assistant before graduating from law school at Barry University in 2014. After that, she spent three years in the Office of the Public Defender under Blaise Trettis, where she represented clients in misdemeanor cases. She moved to the State Attorney's Office in 2017, working mostly in the misdemeanor and juvenile divisions.

In November 2020, she was promoted to the felony division but left after only three weeks on the job to work with domestic violence victims at Serene Harbor, according to her personnel file.

The decision was motivated by her time as a prosecutor, she said.

"Working at the State Attorney's Office, I noticed we would have the same victims again and again, and an opportunity presented itself at Serene Harbor," Torpy said during an Oct. 12 candidate forum in Viera, hosted by the Brevard County Bar Association. "I loved it because they wanted to break the cycle."

Torpy has also highlighted two articles she published in academic law journals, and said she has participated in over 16 jury trials in her career.

County Court Group 4 candidate Renee Torpy has highlighted her diverse experience in criminal defense, prosecution and civil matters.
County Court Group 4 candidate Renee Torpy has highlighted her diverse experience in criminal defense, prosecution and civil matters.

She has also claimed 120 non-jury trials in front of a judge, a number that became a minor point of contention at the Oct. 12 forum after Musselman said she believed Torpy was including in that figure her injunction hearings.

"I would categorize them as hearings and not non-jury trials," Musselman said.

"My non-jury trials are also in juvenile court," Torpy responded.

Torpy said her choices in her law career have all been aimed at one day becoming judge, which she said has been a "childhood dream" ever since she took a class in legal studies as a student at Satellite High School.

"I'm running for Brevard County judge because of my experience as both a defense (attorney) and as a prosecutor, and now with my civil work," Torpy said Oct. 12. "I believe I can bring those skills to the bench."

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Musselman spotlights deep experience

Musselman has worked in the criminal justice field for over 30 years, including nearly two decades in the Brevard and Seminole Counties State Attorney’s Office.

Before that, she said, she had an internship at the Brevard County Jail while completing a degree at the Florida Institute of Technology, which turned into a seven-year stint as a probation officer.

She was hired by the State Attorney's Office in 2004 after graduating from law school at Widener University in Pennsylvania.

As a state prosecutor Musselman has served in a variety of roles, most recently in the felony intake division, where she works closely with law enforcement and has played a key role in deciding whether to bring cases to trial. She said she has directly participated in six non-jury trials and 31 jury trials, including a handful of grand jury trials.

"I have reviewed thousands of search warrants. I've reviewed 20,000 cases, worked with thousands of victims," she said at the Oct. 12 forum.

Musselman has also highlighted her experience as a training attorney, a role in which she has helped mentor dozens of young prosecutors, several of whom are now sitting judges, she said.

County Judge Group 4 candidate Kimberly Musselman at a July 25 judicial candidate forum hosted by the North Brevard Democratic Club at Dixie Crossroads in Titusville.
County Judge Group 4 candidate Kimberly Musselman at a July 25 judicial candidate forum hosted by the North Brevard Democratic Club at Dixie Crossroads in Titusville.

Becoming a judge is the "next step in my career," Musselman said at the forum. "I feel ready for it, and I feel like it's a place I'm ready to serve the citizens of Brevard, behind the bench," she said Oct. 12.

Heavyweight endorsements

Musselman and Torpy both sport a list of heavyweight endorsements from well-known Brevard County officials.

Musselman has netted endorsements from most of the county's constitutional officers. She is backed by Property Appraiser Dana Blickley, Tax Collector Lisa Cullen and Clerk of Courts Rachel Sadoff. Musselman is also endorsed by her boss Archer, and former Clerk of Courts Scott Ellis.

Besides Ivey, Torpy has been endorsed by State Rep. Tyler Sirois and State Sen. Tom Wright, and by Steve Crisafulli and Mike Haridopolis, both former state legislators turned lobbyists.

While judge candidates accepting endorsements and campaign help from sitting officials is not improper or uncommon, judicial ethics experts that spoke to FLORIDA TODAY for a previous story said Torpy's close relationship with Ivey raises questions about her independence on the bench if she were elected.

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While Torpy said she has been "grateful" for the sheriff's support, she strongly denied that he would impact her decisions as a judge.

"It doesn't matter whose endorsement I have. It's not going to affect my role on the bench," Torpy said during the Oct. 12 candidate forum in Viera. "My job is to follow the laws and to follow the Constitution, and that's what I would do."

Musselman, a career prosecutor who has worked in Archer's office for 19 years, also denied she would be influenced by her personal relationships with the officials who have endorsed her, including her boss, the state attorney.

"They have definitely been mentors in the community for me," Musselman said during a separate FLORIDA TODAY candidate forum. "But I can tell you, as a prosecutor, I've had the courage to make very difficult decisions ... and I can deliver the news (of decisions) to the victims, to the community, to the attorneys and to law enforcement."

Lessons from life

Both candidates have pledged to rule fairly if elected, giving due consideration under the Constitution to both victims and to those accused of crimes. Both have also said they would run an efficient court schedule to manage a backlog of cases that have built up since the start of the pandemic.

Aside from that, Torpy and Musselman have looked to their life experiences to sway voters, which they say has prepared them to take the bench in other ways.

Before her time in criminal justice, Musselman said, she worked as a mental health technician in a psychiatric hospital, and in 2011 she adopted two children that she took in through the foster care system.

That has helped her maintain compassion for people who struggle with mental health problems and other issues that can land them in front of a judge, she said.

"A lot of times, people think that everyone in the criminal justice system is evil. It's a very small percentage that is evil. The rest of the people in the criminal justice system have problems," Musselman said during the FLORIDA TODAY forum.

"In county court, judges can help other parties in the court to address those problems so they're not in the criminal justice system again."

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Musselman has also highlighted her work on the boards of the Junior League of South Brevard and AMIkids Space Coast, an organization aimed at helping troubled youths.

Torpy has pointed to her strong family roots in Brevard and to her parents, her father a service member in the U.S. Army and her mother a public librarian, who she said instilled in her a passion for public service.

"They taught me the importance of service, and even in my free time, to this day I still give back to the community," Torpy said in the FLORIDA TODAY forum.

Torpy said she is chair of the Brevard County Domestic Violence Task Force, and volunteers with the Girl Scouts and We Dance Academies, a ballet and dance studio in Melbourne.

Her love of travel and experiencing new cultures has given her perspective on how other people think and perceive the world, she said.

"So when I come to the bench, I'll be able to show compassion, I'll be able to show understanding, and I'll be able have the patience to help (people) through whatever they're going through," Torpy said.

County judges rule on misdemeanor crimes, traffic violations and most civil matters. They serve six-year terms and make an annual salary of $138,020.

Eric Rogers is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact him at 321-242-3717 or esrogers@floridatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter: @EricRogersFT.

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard sheriff looms over judge race as Torpy, Musselman square off