This is a Circuit Court race between two women who’ve taken detours in their legal careers, but have lots of money in their campaign accounts.
Former Assistant State Attorney Kristin Padowitz loaned her campaign $400,000, possibly to discourage potential opponents. But at the last minute, attorney Shari Beth Africk-Olefson entered the race.
Africk-Olefson made a lot of money during her law career and said she is not seeking the office for the paycheck.
Though neither woman has the experience we’d like to see for a circuit judge, voters should select Africk-Olefson for this Group 36 seat.
Africk-Olefson, 55, is a smart, measured attorney who knows a great deal about real estate law and has written several books on the topic. She has appeared on Fox News and CNBC as an expert on the housing foreclosure crisis.
She also is an advocate for women in the workplace. In 2012, she established the Women’s Equal Pay Network, which provides women with a place to share their stories about being mistreated by their employers. In May 2016, she hosted a fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Attorney David Di Pietro said Africk-Olefson would make a fine judge. “She’s not doing this for a pay raise,” he said. “Actually, if you vote for her, you’ll know that she won’t be influenced by any influence peddlers.”
Attorney Larry Davis worked with her at the Broward Public Defender’s Office in the late 1980s. “She has a good personality. She’s very smart,” he said.
Padowitz, 46, also started her career in the Public Defender’s Office, in 1999, but said she left to join her boyfriend as a prosecutor in the State Attorney’s Office. Before she left, she was accused of having given him access to the public defender’s computer system.
Padowitz denied the accusation during an endorsement interview at the Sun Sentinel. She said new computers had been installed in the office and she needed help hooking hers up. She turned to Kenneth Padowitz, who is now her husband and a prominent Broward County defense attorney. She doesn’t remember why she didn’t ask someone in the public defender’s office for help.
“In hindsight, it would have been better not to ask him,” she said.
Padowitz worked at the State Attorney’s Office for 17 years, first handling misdemeanor cases and eventually graduating to first-degree felonies. She said she’s taken at least 75 cases to a jury. “I have spent 19 years applying the evidence code in the trial setting.”
But the last 12 years, Padowitz worked in the office’s case-filing division, where she reviewed whether people were properly charged. The job involved some courtroom work, but was not a promotion, she said. She said she developed high blood pressure during pregnancy and needed a less stressful job. She stayed because it worked for her family life. In June 2017, she resigned to run for judge.
What time Padowitz spent in the courtroom was apparently often unpleasant, according to her questionnaire. She said she’s running for judge because of how she was treated.
“A minority number of judges were kind, while a majority were abusive,” she said. Padowitz eventually realized that “I could be a judge and NOT be unkind or abusive.”
Africk-Olefson said she was mistreated during her career, too. In 2013, she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the law firm Fowler White Boggs, where she was an equity partner from 2009 to 2012.
Her suit alleges she was fired because she complained that the firm had cut her annual salary from $300,000 to $200,000 and mistreated her in other ways. Her complaint mentioned that she’s gay, but didn’t claim that she was discriminated against because of her sexual orientation.
The law firm denied any wrongdoing. The case was settled out of court and everyone signed a non-disclosure agreement. Africk-Olefson said that she used the money from the settlement to establish the Women’s Equal Pay Network.
Presumably, Africk-Olefson would like to say more about the case. The Women’s Equal Pay Network’s website says: “If the financial costs, psychological-physical stress, and humiliation of being discriminated against at work, simply for being a woman, are not enough, women who do stand up are almost uniformly eventually forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, preventing them from ever telling anyone what happened.”
Despite her advocacy for women, Africk-Olefson said during the endorsement interview that she would be scrupulously fair with everyone in her courtroom. “I’m an originalist” when it comes to applying the law, she said.
Broward judicial races sometimes feature candidates who change their names so they get atop the ballot, which is determined alphabetically. Experts say the top position is worth substantial votes because voters often know very little about judicial candidates.
Africk-Olefson was Shari Beth Olefson until March 1, when she married her longtime partner Pamela Africk, a health-care executive. “I’m frustrated that it looks” like she changed her name to improve her position on the ballot, she said. (She initially filed to run in a different race.) “I took my wife’s name. It just so happens that we got married now.” Africk-Olefson’s wife did not similarly change her name.
Africk-Olefson correctly pointed out in her questionnaire that there are many more civil cases than criminal cases in circuit court. She said she has handled “primarily complex civil cases” that didn’t result in jury trials.
The Broward bench is filled with judges who have experience in criminal defense or prosecution. It needs more judges who understand civil matters and Africk-Olefson has a strong civil law background. She’s also spent the past six months studying the goings-on in courtrooms. We believe she’s got the smarts to be an effective and competent judge.
Africk-Olefson earned her bachelor’s degree from Carnegie-Mellon University and her law degree from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City. She has advanced degrees in psychology and finance from the University of Miami. She lives in Fort Lauderdale.